The Lady and the Lion-Classic studio logos

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey


If I asked you to consider the word LOGO, what would you come up with? Very likely you would start rifling the image files in your mind. Depending on your age, the ones at the top of the pile might be very different: the blue IBM or red and white Coca-Cola logos; perhaps the Apple logo or the lightning bolt typeface identifying the Harry Potter series (typography is as much a part of logo design as pictorial elements). Logos, at least the successful ones, all have in common an ability to instantly connect viewers with an idea or collection of impressions inspired by the sign (the logo). Like all modern businesses film studios have spent years nurturing, protecting, and very carefully tweaking their logos because in a market economy consumer identification is essential to the success of a business plan whether you’re selling popcorn or splitting the atom.


The logo for Big Blue, IBM, created by legendary designer Paul Rand who also created corporate logos for ABC, UPS and Westinghouse. The original name of the company, International Business Machines has been superseded by the all-encompasing image of the blue and white striped logo. As with the IBM logo, the lightning bolt font signifying the Harry Potter franchise demonstrates the importance of typography in logo design. In fact, logo designers take typography so seriously that when international home furnishing giant Ikea changed the typeface on their 2010 catalogue from slick, clean, Futura to a screen font created by Microsoft (Verdana), bloggers and design sites were merciless in their contempt for what they saw as a huge step backwards for the Ikea brand.Coming relatively recently to the corporate world, the Apple Corp. logo made up for lost time, quickly becoming one of the most recognizable images in the world.

 The use of symbols and signs has been a major preoccupation for thinkers at least since Plato who maintained a distinction between things and signs (in modern linguistics this distinction is often referred to as between signifieds and signifiers—an object like a tree and the word tree that we use to talk about that object). In 397 AD the great Christian philosopher Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo (located in present day Algeria) published a treatise on Christian Doctrine in which he explained the importance of signs. “A sign is a thing which causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses.” Augustine, as usual, was way ahead of his time, sounding here like a professor of semiology, a field of study investigating signs and symbols that wouldn’t come into its own for another 1,500 years. But his point hints at what makes great advertising and logo design effective.


 Saint Augustine, whose wide ranging philosophical meditations brought him to consider the importance of signs and symbols. He may very likely have been considering the wealth of connections both conscious and unconscious that come into play with the image of the Christian cross. Other religions have their own powerful visual metaphors. The Buddhist Wheel of Dharma symbolizes the turning of the universe.

 In the case of tree the word calls up much more than just a picture of an object growing in the woods. It carries with it a wealth of symbolic attachments, memories, personal and cultural references: the Tree of Life, the chestnut tree in Longfellow’s poem, Shel Silverstein’s story of the giving tree, that tree in the backyard under which you played as a child or climbed as high as you could and which allowed you to see the earth spread out like a blanket far below. Trees are mentioned in the Bible, they are planted to commemorate momentous events, used to build ships which provided for the economic welfare of nations for thousands of years, they appear in quotes from Whitman, Thoreau, and, of course, Wordsworth. Abraham Lincoln compared a tree to one’s character and Joyce Kilmer famously observed that “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree”. All of these images, concepts, and palimpsests of memory come into play with the appearance of the sign: tree. This is the type of reaction early film moguls wished to engender with the signs that represented their products.


 The Tree of Life, The Giving Tree, Yggdrasil, the Norse mythological tree surrounding the earth, and American Redwood trees all demonstrate the power of an object like a tree when invested with metaphorical signification.

 Even the most casual filmgoer will immediately recognize the MGM lion, Columbia Pictures’ Lady Liberty, the Warner Brothers WB shield and the spinning globe that opens films produced by Universal. These brands, and those of RKO, Paramount and the lesser studios, Republic, Monogram and others have all changed over the years, sometimes dramatically but most of them have returned to some variation of their early glory days during the hey-day of Hollywood studio power in the thirties and forties. How these images were selected, what kind of production effects were employed to develop them and ultimately what they say about the studios, movies in general, and us as consumers of film products is the topic of this piece. But before we can begin to deconstruct these studio logos we need to go back in time a bit and consider first principles of logo design.



MGM's lion, Columbia's Lady Liberty and Paramount's star-studded mountain top. Classic Hollywood studio logos.

Very likely the earliest identification markings were used to denote ownership--pottery markings or cattle brands for instance. The Greek historian Herodotus writing around 440 BC describes cylinder seals used by Babylonians for purposes of authentication and identification in business or personal transactions and cylinder seals have been found in digs at ancient Mesopotamian sites dating back some three thousand years. Homer describes the use of color and design as branding elements used by military groups and individuals during the Trojan War. The surly but fearsome Achaean leader Achilles sailed to Troy in black hulled ships, an identifying mark of his Myrmidon soldiers. Achilles himself went into battle with an array of armaments, horses and weapons so identifiable that when his friend Patroclus borrows his armor and rides into the fray to fend off a Trojan attack his appearance changes the course of the war. Warriors on both sides immediately recognize the Achilles “brand”. Plenty of soiled armor on the Trojan side: “…all their courage quaked, their columns buckled…Each Trojan soldier glancing left and right—how could he run from sudden, plunging death?”. Now that’s effective branding! Centuries after Troy had burned to the ground Roman generals employed insignias to identify legions and ranks. Most of these early identification systems still operated on the most pragmatic, indexical level, not yet achieving the complexity of modern logos or even the kind of signification alluded to by Augustine.


 Cylinder seals were in use some three thousand years ago to authenticate the identity of the owner of the seal. Ancient Greek pottery art illustrates early imagery of the great warrior of Homer's Illiad, Achilles. A more recent impression of Achilles, Brad Pitt from Troy.

 The process of signification gained ground all through the middle ages. If you were going to war at any time from the 10th century on and you were wearing armor, you would want your very own logo in the form of a banner, insignia or coat of arms so that in the heat of combat you didn’t catch a battle axe in the head from one of your own men. The development of heraldry with its symbolic representations of flora, fauna, mythical creatures, graphic elements, and color codes came into its own at this time. And not just for its usefulness on the field of battle.



 During the middle ages coats of arms, banners and insignias were essential for telling the good guys from the bad guys. The image on the left shows English soldiers rounding up French prisoners (identifiable by the fleur-de-lis designs) at the Battle of Agincourt. Flaunting the fleur-de-lis did nothing for the French. Henry V, the English leader at Agincourt, killed his prisoners. On the far right a symbol from an earlier army, the Roman Legion. The Eagle, a common symbol for the grandeur of Rome, sits atop a banner displaying the initials SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, the motto of the Roman Republic, the Senate and People of Rome.

 The strategy of businesses identifying themselves with some kind of recognizable sign was also a product of the middle ages. The family of the Marquis de Goulaine, working out of the vineyards of the Chateau de Goulaine has operated a wine producing business since the year 1000. It is the second oldest continuously operating business in the world. Its coat of arms (shown below) has identified its products for over a thousand years. (The oldest, in case you’re wondering, is a hotel and spa company in Japan, Hoshi Ryokan, which began operations in 718! One hopes the sheets have been changed since then.)



Since the year 1000 AD the Chateau de Goulaine (center) has operated a wine making business which makes their coat of arms (left) the oldest visual business reference. According to the Guinness Book of Records the oldest brand (and logo) still in effect is Lyle's Golden Syrup, made in the UK.

 Saint Augustine’s observation about the power of signs to invoke something beyond rudimentary images—the very reason for the ubiquity of logos in today’s business world—was borne out persuasively during the Middle Ages. Medieval culture developed an acute awareness of visual metaphor which increased the usefulness of signs as conduits of meaning. Writing about symbol and allegory in his study of Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, Italian scholar Umberto Eco reminds us that “The medievals inhabited a world filled with references…Nature spoke to them heraldically: lions or nut-trees were more than they seemed; griffins were just as real as lions because, like them, they were signs of a higher truth.” The image of a lion on a coat of arms signified courage; a ram indicated authority. Colors added an additional layer of meaning: gold meant generosity; white, peace and sincerity; blue, loyalty and truth; green, hope. Symbols and colors in a coat of arms or visual references in paintings or an architectural frieze invited them in to a world of signification and meaning that is mostly lost on us today.



 Coats of arms are rife with signification. Here are three examples using symbols to communicate to anyone who can read them important information about those who have chosen these images to reflect either their family or their organization. On the left is the heraldic coat of arms of the Anglican diocese of Trinidad. It employs three primary symbols of Christianity: the Cross, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, symbolizing God as being the beginning and the end, and the Shield of the Trinity explaining the relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The center coat of arms represents the family name Casey (my name) and uses eagles to symbolize strength and courage (you bet!). The chevron design which mimics a roof indicates protection and the color, white or silver, represents peace and sincerity. The motto--not shown in this illustration--comes from the Aenied: Per Varios Casus, by various fortunes. My translation of it in the Aenied is "through various calamities". I think I'll take the former translation. On the right, a coat of arms with crows indicates watchfulness or providence. As one might expect, all coats of arms say something nice about the bearer. I could find none that indicated the owner to be a slimy, untrustworthy weasel.

 But we have our own sets of symbolic imagery and references that generate contemporary visual metaphors. Most of these are culturally determined so using them in other settings can be perilous. To most Americans familiar with pop culture a single glittering glove says “Michael Jackson” and carries with it all the ideas, memories and assessments that each of us can conjure up about his stellar career as a performer and the creepy eccentricities of his personal life. All manifest in a simple image. It’s a symbol that conveys much more information than “glittering glove” although to a villager in Papua New Guinea it’s just a funny looking glove. Unless of course he’s one of the several billion people who are familiar with Thriller.

The famous glove and all that it implies.

 The advertising world is full of stories about the problem of translating imagery or signs from one culture or group to another. When Coca-Cola decided to enter the Chinese marketplace in 1928 the company discovered that the phonetic translation of the name turned out to say something like “Bite the wax tadpole” in Mandarin. Coca-Cola executives, realizing that things don’t go better with tadpoles--even wax ones--wisely selected a different set of pictographs which meant roughly “Tastes good and gives pleasure”. You may be thinking now about the egregious-sounding story of General Motors trying to sell a car named Nova in South America (the problem ostensibly being that “no va” translates as “no go”—a problem if you’re selling something that must go). I declined this story because it’s largely apocryphal and trotted out all too often anyway. I myself have always been curious as to the reason for choosing Super 8 as a name for a motel chain. Obviously no one around that table made a connection with the word suppurate. Nonetheless, the import behind all stories of this kind is the power of imagery and logos and identification when employed to sell a product. And that brings us, finally, to the development and production of images selected to represent the major Hollywood studios.



 Coca-Cola's entry into the Chinese market in 1928 almost equated their product with a tadpole--a wax one to boot. Attention to naming is as important as a good logo. Super 8 motels might have wanted to choose a different number had they realized its homophonic connection to suppurate.

 MGM’s roaring lion came to life as the brainchild not of Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, or Marcus Loew, owner of Metro pictures, but of one of the most interesting of early Hollywood characters: publicist, writer, ad-man, and lyricist Howard Dietz. Dietz, who attended ColumbiaUniversity before leaving to enter the navy during World War I, was part of a burgeoning group of hungry artists who came out of New York and moved west to find work in the new industry of motion pictures. He came up with the idea for a roaring lion and the motto Ars Gratia Artis (art for art’s sake) sometime in 1924 and that logo has represented MGM in some way ever since.


Howard Dietz, multi-talented creator of the MGM logo talks with Marlene Dietrich in 1949 while serving as host for a weekly MGM radio program. Louis B. Mayer. An early version of the famous roaring lion trade mark.

 The lion is the mascot and symbol of ColumbiaUniversity; the motto, which probably appealed to Mayer and Goldwyn as a high-minded sounding sentiment, had a more contentious provenance than either of those gentlemen probably would have liked. Ars Gratia Artis was the motto of the Aesthetic Movement which prospered in England and on the continent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was connected with writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler who considered the connection of art with any extraneous qualities such as socially progressive or moral virtues to be unnecessary and intrusive. The sense of supporters of the Aesthetic Movement was that art should be free to be subversive. Probably not what the owners of MGM--European Jews who prided themselves on their complete assimilation to American cultural and social mores--would have wanted. Nonetheless, it appealed to them perhaps by dint of its sense of sophistication and class, qualities highly prized by MGM.



MGM's motto, Ars Gratia Artis, was probably the only thing Sam Goldwyn (center) and Louis B. Mayer had in common with writer, bon vivant and master of the epigram, Oscar Wilde (left). Wilde, never one to lose an opportunity for epigrammatic wittiness, said on his deathbed "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do". The single biggest reason for MGM's reputation for highly polished, quality films was head of production Irving Thalberg seen here with his wife, Norma Shearer, and his boss, Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg was the inspiration for the main character in Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Last Tycoon.


Known in the business as Re-take Valley, the Metro backlot, especially after the arrival of wunderkind head of production Irving Thalberg (lured away from Universal by Mayer in 1924), became the workshop of perfectionists. No detail was deemed inessential or unimportant and MGM turned out the most beautifully crafted films during the thirties and forties; films often with “important” (but never controversial) themes: Captains Courageous, Mutiny on the Bounty, San Francisco, Grand Hotel, Pride and Prejudice. Scott Eyman, biographer of Louis B. Mayer writes that “Within the industry whenever other studios, Paramount or RKO, made a particularly good picture it would be said that “it was of MGM quality”; at a sneak preview, whenever the MGM lion appeared, there would be a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.” One MGM contract star equated working there with being signed to pitch for the New York Yankees.



MGM produced films with extremely high production values demonstrated very nicely in such entries as Grand Hotel with John Barrymore and Greta Garbo, Mutiny on the Bounty, starring a mustache-less Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, and Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy (winning the first of  back-to-back Best Actor Oscars) and Freddie Bartholomew.


MGM went after the best talent and that included its front office. Howard Dietz, although he made a substantial name for himself as an executive at Metro, would have been famous had he never met Louis B. Mayer. His collaboration with songwriter Arthur Schwartz produced some of the greatest and best known American song standards: You and the Night and the Music, I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans, Dancing in the Dark and that evergreen paean to Showbiz, That’s Entertainment. Dietz, a prolific workaholic, who saved practically every scrap of paper he ever wrote on or signed, donated his collection to the New York Public Library. It is the largest such collection in the building. He tried to stay in New York cranking out song lyrics by day and working on MGM projects by night but, as Wilfred Sheed in his chatty and much too fun book about American songwriting, The House That George Built, recounts, “For some time now Howard Dietz had doubled as publicity director for MGM…as a sort of hobby supporting a hobby; but the stakes had never been so high before, and the dabbling days were done. By 1936, it was no longer enough to mail in one’s work. Louis B. Mayer had to see you working.” One final note about this amazing talent: while at Columbia two of his fellow students were hall of fame American lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein. Even more incredibly he went to Townsend HarrisHigh School with lyricists Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg. That’s a bit like having a high school baseball team with Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller.



Stills from The Bandwagon, one of the greatest Hollywood musicals, put together from a string of songs written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dance in Central Park. Astaire in the Shine on My Shoes number. A poster for The Bandwagon.


The MGM lion began as a simple title card with a lion superimposed in a circle with some scrollwork and a theatrical mask surrounded by garland beneath. There were a number of lions through the years, Slats, Jackie, Tanner, and Leo to name a few (some more ferocious than others) but the general production piece was the same: a simple in-camera effect that superimposed the matte card over the growling lion. MGM had some fun by replacing the lion with, among others, three growling Marx Brothers after the brothers came to MGM from Paramount. In the late sixties a newly designed “modern” stylized lion replaced the old-fashioned looking logo but MGM eventually reverted to an updated version of its traditional image, a process that almost all the other studios went through.




MGM, like almost all Hollywood studios, tried to update their logo in the late sixties. Few of these "improved" versions lasted very long. With mergers and buyouts ravaging the old studio system new owners found comfort, and audience identification with the vintage logo designs, albeit with a nod to progress (note the at the bottom of the title card).


If MGM’s lion was the most recognizable logo, the oldest is Paramount’s famous mountain ringed with stars. This image of the magisterial expanses of the American west emanating a sense of grandeur and power with a touch of manifest destiny thrown in for good measure has withstood a number of redesigns and is still in use today. It was designed by a personage even more important to the American film industry than Howard Dietz. Some have called William Wadsworth Hodkinson the “Man who invented Hollywood”. A somewhat overstated soubriquet but not without some justification. W.W. Hodkinson developed the system of film production and distribution that still exists in some form; successful because it almost guaranteed everyone in the production and distribution chain (with the possible exception of the writers) a decent share of the profits.



 The Man Who Invented Hollywood, W.W. Hodkinson. Well, if he didn't actually invent Hollywood, he did invent the Paramount logo.


Working with Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor he created the Paramount Pictures Corporation in 1914 and at a meeting with Zukor, sketched out a version of the star-ringed mountain. There has been no end of speculation as to which mountain, if any, Hodkinson was thinking of when he took pencil to blotter paper. Some have maintained it was a mountain (Ben Lomond) in Utah where he grew up but, oops! He apparently grew up in Kansas, a state not known for its towering mountain ranges.  Other sources claim he was born in Colorado. Some believe it was a mountain in Scotland and that yet another mountain somewhere in Peru was the actual snow-covered peak filmed for the logo (even though it’s clearly a matte painting and, since 1987, a CGI image). After several days of source-poring I hit upon a Cecil Adams response to this question. Adams, the possibly pseudonymous (can we be sure of nothing? An epistemological nightmare, to be sure!), author of the famous column “The Straight Dope” has an excellent answer to questions like these: Don’t know, don’t care. Good answer. The Paramount logo has survived its share of changes but remains, even in its current digital state, a grand, gauzy image of stars, glory and the allure of America both as landscape and idea; a geography of limitless possibilities and power. The stars around the mountain referred to their array of big name actors and actresses and most of the films produced in the thirties and forties were vehicles for these stars: Gary Cooper, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Alan Ladd, VeronicaLake, Bob Hope.




The Paramount brain trust, once they had gotten rid of Hodkinson. Adolf Zukor (left) and Jesse Lasky. Three of Paramount's biggest stars during the forties were Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby. The three appeared in a series of movies known as the Road Pictures (the Road to Zanzibar, Rio, Utopia, Bali, etc.). In the Road to Utopia, Hope, seeing a mountain in the distance suddenly sees stars ring the peak. Recognizing the Paramount logo he turns to the camera and says "My bread and butter!" Paramount is also mentioned in a number of the songs sung by Bing and Bob. In the Road to Morocco they sing "For any villains we may meet we haven't any fear, Paramount will protect us cause we've signed for five more years."

Aaron and Hirsz Wonskolaser (or maybe it was Wonsal—another puzzle!) stood outside a Nickelodeon theater in 1903 watching customers parade by and drop their nickels in a plate. They went in and watched three pictures, came outside, shook hands and decided to go into the moving picture business. Later that year they bought a projector and established a theater in New Castle, Pennsylvania. It was the beginning of one of the great American media empires, Warner Brothers. Like other European Jews who had emigrated to the United States as the 20th century’s egg cracked open, Albert and Harry Warner, along with their brothers Sam and the youngest, Jack, got into the business as theater owners and then distributors. Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, Adolph Zuckor, Carl Laemmle, and the Warner boys all got their education at the street level. They watched how audiences reacted and knew what they wanted, what worked and what didn’t. They knew the business, literally from the ground up. This hands-on experience would help them establish, against great odds, Hollywood; in author Neal Gabler’s phrase, an empire of their own.


 The Brothers Warner: Harry, Jack, Sam and Albert. The WB shield.


Unlike MGM’s lion or Paramount’s star-framed mountain, there are no memorable anecdotes surrounding the creation of the WB shield. In fact, there is nothing; not even a halfway decent fabrication. Early Warner Vitaphone productions simply opened with a “Warner Brothers Presents” credit card featuring a very small WB shield in the center. By the late twenties though, the famous shield design surrounding the WB initials with Warner Bros. Pictures on a bar across the shield preceded all Warner films. That design has gone through more permutations than perhaps any other major studio logo; partly because the Warner empire became so diverse. They not only owned film production and distribution companies, they owned radio stations, music recording and publishing companies, later book publishers and eventually merged with Time, Inc and Time/AOL.


There has never been much fancy about the logo but the shield and the initials have undergone many small adjustments and variations over the decades. The shield itself represents strength, protection and unlike the regal lion and the majestic mountain, establishes itself as representative of a more aggressive, unbending, muscular style of filmmaking. And that, in fact, is what Warner’s became known for. Despite the wartime romance masterpieces like Casablanca, the three-hankie tearjerkers like Now Voyager, and swashbucklers like Captain Blood, Warner’s made its name on gritty, socially conscious pictures like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Grand-Guignol gangster epics like Little Caesar and Public Enemy (two of the great endings in movie history: Edward G. Robinson, as the mad-dog Caesar Enrico Bandello, dying of gunshot wounds, moans “Mother of Mercy? Is this the end of Rico?” and Jimmy Cagney, wrapped like a bug-eyed mummy in hospital bandages falling, dead, through the front door of his mother’s house as she sings, happily unaware of her son’s unconventional homecoming). That shield meant serious business was ahead. But as the company expanded its brand the WB shield also became associated with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as well, with musicals, and, in today’s market with syndicated television shows. Here at WBKO we show Ellen, People’s Court, Judge Joe, Sex in the City, Bonnie Hunt, Smallville, Gossip Girl and more—all Warner shows. That’s a lot for any logo to handle.




Warner Bros. Pictures made their name with gritty, hard-edged social dramas like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni. It was based on a true story about the horrific prison conditions in America at the time. The other side of the coin: gangster epics like Public Enemy starring a feral Jimmy Cagney as the up and coming killer, Tom Powers.





As the Warner entertainment empire expanded, the WB shield also became associated with much different fare: television hits like Ellen, Gossip Girls, and a certain kwazy wabbit.


But it does show how what a logo represents can change in both subtle and dramatic ways over the years. We’ll consider that next time when we complete our look at the major studio logos and consider also how the time of their origins have impacted both the film industry and our vision of a movie-made world. Stay tuned.


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