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On the Nature of Mascots

September 29, 2020 — 14 Comments

Brits and Americans share many things. That includes English as a primary language. Well, sort of.

Aside from some people’s inclination to misspell words—such as adding a superfluous letter “u” to words like colour and humour—we agree on most things. Well, add quotation marks to the arena of dissimilarities. Nevertheless, we’re normally able to decipher one another’s literature.

There is another striking difference between the two cultures. Academic institutions in the United States invariably choose an emblematic mascot to represent the school. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, such a practice seems a tad juvenile. (But what would a reasonable person expect from a country a mere 254 years old?)

Alas, because of this absence, C.S. Lewis missed out on the questionable pleasure of having a mascot of which to sing its praises. However, his wife Joy was a graduate of two American colleges and could boast of two mascots, accordingly. More about that in a moment.

There does appear to be a single renegade exception to the lack of mascots at Oxford. Regent’s Park College, Oxford, apparently claims Emmanuelle the Tortoise as their own.

Dangerous Mascots

The majority of mascots are animals. The largest group consists of felines, particularly predators like lions, cougars, pumas and tigers. Some are rather less intimidating. My alma mater, the University of Washington, uses “Huskies,” and has a real live pup (pictured above) as its embodiment. I chuckle whenever I think about our rival universities in Oregon, whose schools are represented by the Ducks and the Beavers.

Finn Mirva Lempiäinen cautions Europeans headed to the States for studies to be forewarned about mascots. Her description of this one is particularly disgusting:

In a sea of mascots representing strength and resilience–such as hawks, dogs and panthers–the slow Banana Slug of the University of California Santa Cruz really stands out. This slimy, shell-less yellow mollusc [mollusk] is relevant to Santa Cruz as it lives in the nearby redwood forests.

It also showcases the softer values of the university: that athletics should be for everyone and participating matters more than winning. The Banana Slug has been the school’s official mascot since 1986. 

Okay. Years ago a pastor friend told me about a Texas high school in Kerrville that had an animal “part” as their mascot. They were (and still are) the “Antlers.” Not the Deer, Elk, Moose, or Bighorn Sheep. The antlers. And, pièce de résistance comes in the adaptation of the mascot for female students (since in most species only males bear antlers). They are elegantly referred to as the “Lady Antlers.” Lest you consider this a unique aberration, consider the fact there are other schools that look to antlers for inspiration. And at least one, in appropriately named Elkhorn, Nebraska, that uses the term “Antler Girls.”

Surprisingly, mascots can be quite controversial. In the U.S. a number of historical mascots have recently been ushered into oblivion because of their potential to make people uncomfortable. This has been especially true with mascots identified with Native American peoples. The angriest current debate relates to the National Football (not soccer) team in our nation’s capital: the Washington Redskins. Some Europeans are aware of this development, as reported in The Guardian.

A Menagerie of Mascots

Moving biennially in my military family, I had too many mascots to remember. Being an avid dog lover, I enjoyed the UW choice of huskies. Imagine when I learned our initial mascot was a play on the fact that Seattle is known for its rain and long, overcast winters. The university’s first football game (akin to modern rugby) was played in 1889. Before 1922, the nickname for the team was the Sundodgers.

That’s not a typo. And the name has been resurrected for Seattle’s collegiate USA Ultimate (aka Ultimate Frisbee) team. The University of Washington Sundodgers go the extra mile. Their motto is “We hate the sun.”

Mascots and C.S. Lewis

The fact that Lewis’ life was personally devoid of mascots hasn’t deterred (American) schools inspired by him from adopting their own. Oregon’s C.S. Lewis Academy athletes are called the Watchmen.

A Christian school in Georgia chose Lions, in homage to the Lion of Judah and Narnia’s Aslan. Southwestern Baptist Seminary has its own college and they not only chose a Lion, but “named” that mascot “Lewis.”

“The lion was chosen [as our mascot] because of some factors that make [Scarborough College] unique: our Great Books classical education and our emphases on apologetics and biblical studies,” says Michael Wilkinson, dean of Scarborough College. “These three things combined make C.S. Lewis the quintessential representative for our program. Thus, Aslan, his most well-known character, proved to be the model for the mascot.”

Mascots in the Life of Joy Davidman Lewis

Joy attended two colleges, Hunter College CUNY with the Hunter Hawks and Columbia University with its Lions. I doubt she took much notice.

There was, though, a fascinating point where Joy’s life intersected with an internationally recognized cinematic mascot—the MGM Lion! The following story comes from Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis. This excellent biography included an extended section on the six months Joy spent in Hollywood, hoping to insinuate some Communist perspectives into a medium for which she had little regard.

She regarded the other script writers with disdain, and won no friends before she was released in December of 1939.

Joy made sure the other junior writers knew she was too accomplished to be accounted an equal. She had solid grounds for bragging, too. On July 5 the esteemed New Republic published her poem “Jews of No Man’s Land.” Joy didn’t hesitate to spread the word . . . At the same time, she was being condescended to by MGM’s hack staff writers. She resented being treated as anything less than a recognized talent.

“I gloated over my writer-colleagues,” she told Jim Still after her novel sold, “none of whom were capable of producing more than a ten-page screen story.” This attitude did not endear Joy to the other junior writers. Walter Doniger, a twenty-one-year-old from Duke who would go on to become a successful director and producer, remembered her as loud, unattractive, unlikable, and “bossy bossy bossy,” he said.

Her stint at MGM was not all bad.

One of the saving graces of her stint at MGM was Leo Jr., a cuddly lion cub cast as the mascot for the short subjects department. At a studio party, for the amusement of all, their leading writer, Robert Benchley, fed Leo from a bottle. The little show wasn’t entirely successful. The bottle’s nipple slid off, spilling milk on Benchley’s pants, and the chin strap on Leo’s crown slipped into his mouth. There was much squealing from the spectators, but Joy took the cub into a corner and soothed it to sleep. They developed a friendship.

Joy liked hiking in the California hills, which she considered beautiful despite being “disfigured with film stars’ Tudor mansions and French chateaux.” Still, returning to New York, she carried fond memories of her relationship with a real, live, mascot and star in his own right.

“A lion is like a steel spring when you feel him,” she said, “but he acts like a dog. When Leo became affectionate, I’d bat him down, and then look for damage. Invariably there would be another run in my stockings.”

As pets do, Leo became a blank slate for Joy’s projections. He didn’t like the starlets, she determined. They wore too much perfume and smelled awful. He was playful, almost like a neglected child starved for attention. “The nicest person I met [in Hollywood] was Leo the Lion,” Joy later said.

oz-lionFew people know this peculiar fact about The Wizard of Oz. And this oddity shares an interesting link to one of C.S. Lewis’ most familiar novels.

Filmmaking has changed greatly since 1939 when Dorothy first tapped together her ruby slippers. One of those modifications involves the treatment of animals.

Some of us are old enough to remember the initial appearance of the disclaimers: “No animals were injured in the making of this film.” Those announcements disappeared long ago, as people have long supposed the humane treatment of animals required.

As far as I know, no one has alleged the mistreatment of animals in The Wizard of Oz. But the odd fact mentioned above refers to one of the costumes worn by a major character in the film.

Bert Lahr played the Cowardly Lion, who continued acting until he died during the filming of The Night They Raided Minsky’s in 1968. Fortunately, he was in his prime while traipsing across Oz, because his costume weighed at least sixty pounds.

Apparently the costume designer was going for accuracy—in the case of the Cowardly Lion, if not for the citizens of Munchkinland. He opted for using an actual lion pelt. At least two, in fact, since there was a least one backup.

Cinema memorabilia often provides unbelievable dividends. MGM sold the primary costume in 1970 for a mere $2,400. In 2005, after some restoration by a taxidermist, the costume sold for $826,000. Nine years later, in 2014, it became the highest valued male performer’s costume, selling for $3,100,000.

It is quite fitting that Leo the Lion is the mascot for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. While there have been seven “Leos” since 1916, it is doubtful that any of them contributed their hide to costuming the Cowardly Lion.

What Has Oz to do with Narnia?

Oz and Narnia resemble one another in the obvious sense that both are fantasy lands. I’m ill-equipped to compare the two beyond that, having no desire to read about the former. Here you’ll find an interesting article that offers some insights into the realm of the Wizard. The literary critics of The Telegraph offer the following contrast.

Even so, [Oz is] a strangely amorphous creation, originally reached by cyclone but in later books by shipwreck (twice), by earthquake and by simply getting lost. As a fantasy land, it has none of the depth or authority of Tolkien’s Middle Earth nor even the physicality of CS Lewis’s Narnia.

Reaching back to the turn of the millennia, you might enjoy reading “Oz vs. Narnia.” Comparing the promotion of the two realms on their respective hundredth and fiftieth anniversaries, the author finds Narnia’s treatment by HarperCollins wanting.

But however much the tribute to Oz exceeds the tribute to Narnia in sumptuousness, it can’t disguise the superiority of Lewis’ book. As a child, I loved Oz’s endless cavalcade of strange creatures and, especially, John R. Neil’s trippy art nouveau illustrations and extravagant marginalia; I still like the books today. But the first time I read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in second grade, I knew that I’d stumbled into a whole new league.

A Tale of Two Lions

The odd overlap in the two stories is not due to the prominent presence of lions in each world. The Cowardly Lion and Aslan have nothing in common, save perhaps, compassion for others.

But the real life costume of Oz’s lion does relate directly to one of Lewis’ most amazing fictional creations.

In the final Chronicle, The Last Battle, we find many people are led astray by a false prophet. There is a liar masquerading as the true king. The horror that he is able to mislead so many vulnerable souls is magnified by the fact that he too wears an obvious costume—the pelt of a lion.

Lewis’ account of the deception is skillful. One of the most brilliant aspects is that the “king” himself (a donkey) is actually tricked into playing the role by the true deceiver (an ape).

“All the same, Shift,” said Puzzle [the donkey], “even if the skin only belonged to a dumb, wild lion, oughtn’t we to give it a decent burial? I mean, aren’t all lions rather— well, rather solemn? Because of you know Who. Don’t you see?”

“Don’t you start getting ideas into your head, Puzzle,” said Shift. “Because, you know, thinking isn’t your strong point. We’ll make this skin into a fine warm winter coat for you.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’d like that,” said the Donkey. “It would look—I mean, the other Beasts might think—that is to say, I shouldn’t feel—”

“What are you talking about?” said Shift, scratching himself the wrong way up as Apes do.

“I don’t think it would be respectful to the Great Lion, to Aslan himself, if an ass like me went about dressed up in a lion-skin,” said Puzzle. “Now don’t stand arguing, please,” said Shift.

“What does an ass like you know about things of that sort? You know you’re no good at thinking, Puzzle, so why don’t you let me do your thinking for you?”

Obviously, a comparison between real and fictional characters wearing lion skins can only go so far. Still, I assume some readers will find the use of a lion’s pelt to camouflage a completely different species, to be a rather peculiar parallel between Oz and Narnia.