On This Day – 20.3.1919 The birth of Cairbre, the MGM lion, in Dublin Zoo


They used to boast that they had ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’ though their official motto was the lofty ‘Ars gratia artis’ – which translates from bog Latin as ‘art for art’s sake’. Their first mascot was re-named Slats and was succeeded by, among others, Jackie, Tanner, George and Leo.

What am I talking about? This! [roar of a lion]

The boastful organisation told not a word of a lie – MGM in the 1930s and 40s had some of the biggest names in Hollywood under contract, stars like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire – need I go on? As regards the motto, don’t believe a word of it – it was art all right, but it was purely for the sake of money.

The logo was a different matter entirely. When Samuel Goldwyn’s old studio, Goldwyn Pictures merged with the exhibition business Metro and Louis B. Mayer pictures in 1924, the company had already started using a lion in their pre-credit sequence. MGM decided to continue the practice and the first occasion on which the MGM lion appeared before one of the studio’s movies was in the utterly forgettable and accordingly utterly forgotten He who gets slapped a silent movie starring Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer. Perhaps it’s a 1920s version of Fifty shades of grey who knows.

And what has all this got to do with us, I hear you say?

Well, its because of the identity of the very first MGM lion. The studio called him Slats but that wasn’t his real name. It was Cairbre. And he wasn’t African or even Californian, he was a genuine Dub. Cairbre was born in Dublin Zoo in 1919 and was named after Cuchulainn’s charioteer, or a High King of Ireland, or a rebellious pretender to the High Kingship, or whatever you’re having yourself.

Cairbre had, apparently, been introduced to Sam Goldwyn, and the silver screen, by fellow Dub, Cedric Gibbons, the designer and art director. This means that Gibbons is personally responsible for two enduring Hollywood icons, neither of them human. He also designed the statuette to be presented to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at their annual award ceremony, we know them more familiarly today as, the Oscars. Gibbons apparently modelled the statuette on his wife, the statuesque film star Dolores del Rio.

But back to Cairbre. There is a famous photograph of two men filming him for the MGM logo. Health and Safety considerations don’t seem to have been paramount (no pun intended – though, ironically, that’s where the shoot took place – Paramount studios). Camera crew and big cat are separated, not by a hefty iron grille, but by a few feet of clear air. Were Cairbre of malevolent disposition he could have had a snack of cinematographer sushi any time he wanted.

Cairbre’s image continued to be used on all the old black and white, silent MGM movies until 1928. As no one had recorded his heavily Dublin-accented roar, when the talkies began he was replaced by the more garrulous Jackie. He died at the age of 17 and although his hide is on display in a museum in Kansas he should not be confused with the cowardly lion of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz.

When the comedian Mary Tyler Moore formed her own production company MTM in the 1960s – she mimicked the MGM logo, but replaced Cairbre with a little pussycat – it’s highly unlikely the kitty is also Irish.

Cairbre, the big cat who tossed his mane from side to side for MGM, was born 96 years ago, on this day.