Originally created 03/28/04

Felines have made their mark in film, literature



March is said to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb.

Judging from the chilly weather we had last week, it seems this lion isn't going away just yet. But when you consider the sultry heat that summer brings, that might not be a bad thing.

While nature still has a bite, here are a few more kingly felines to consider.

LEO THE LION

The official mascot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM Studios, made his debut in 1916 as a logo, but it was 12 years later, on July 31, 1928, that the public heard his roar at the beginning of the movie White Shadows of the South Seas. It was a silent movie, but the roar was heard via phonograph. The rest, as they say, is history.

THE COWARDLY LION

As portrayed by actor Bert Lahr in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion is probably the second most popular silver-screen feline after Leo. The movie, based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 book, was made by MGM studios. Mr. Lahr, who already was an accomplished Broadway actor, became best known for his rendition of If I Were King of the Forest and setting the bar for the concept "fraidy cat."

BUTT MEMORIAL BRIDGE LIONS

Augusta's most ornate bridge, which traverses the Augusta Canal at 15th Street, was dedicated in 1914 by President Taft to honor Augusta native Maj. Archibald Butt, an aide and close friend who died on the Titanic. The bridge's eagle and lion statues illustrate the respect Butt was accorded when he died.

"That's a symbol of strength and courage, because of Archie Butt," said Augusta Museum of History curator Gordon Blaker. "The legend is he was a big hero on the Titanic; apparently he was directing women and children to lifeboats. Of course, as with all things related to the Titanic, it all's shrouded in mystery. But he was a hero."

Butt was a quartermaster in the Army, and according to Mr. Blaker, he hit the big time when he transported a shipload of horses from the West Coast to the Philippines.

"What you had done before that was stop at every island along the way and let the horses out," he said. "For whatever reason, he never stopped, but he didn't lose a single horse, so he got a lot of fame out of that."

Perhaps it's fitting, then, that his name also is connected to transportation.

LOCAL LIONS

At the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, three African lions prowl the grounds daily. The two females and one male are fairly young, but spokeswoman Sharon Bergeron said the male can still startle visitors when he feels talkative. He arrived in November and has been kept separate from the females, which arrived in May 2001.

Over time, the zoo plans to introduce Hubert, as he's known, to the females, who have no official names. Mrs. Bergeron said it takes time to introduce wild animals to one another, especially young, large carnivores. Hubert, who was born in June 2002, still has to work on his mane before meeting the girls.

"He kind of has a mohawk and a goatee," Mrs. Bergeron said. "It's like a teenager when he gets his peach fuzz in."

THE LIONS AT THE LIBRARY

Before you make it to the New York City Public Library's front doors in midtown Manhattan, you have to get past two of the most famous and revered lion statues in the country. Lying on their bellies with their heads held high, the two adult males have greeted visitors to the Beaux-Arts building since it opened May 23, 1911. The pair were carved from pink Tennessee marble, and they lend an air of stoicism to the hubbub of Fifth Avenue. Their popularity can be gleaned by their identities. Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia dubbed them Patience and Fortitude during the tumultuous 1930s, and the names have stuck since.

PAPER LION

The late George Plimpton pushed participatory journalism light-years forward when, despite being a 36-year-old rookie, he finagled his way onto the Detroit Lions football team in the mid-1960s. In recounting his four weeks of training with the team and playing in an intrasquad game at Pontiac Stadium, Mr. Plimpton crafted a literary classic that became a must-read for sports fans. It goes without saying that Mr. Plimpton had a brave streak that enabled him to pull off such a stunt.

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

The lion in C.S. Lewis' classic children's book is Aslan, the guardian of the magical land of Narnia. In the book, Narnia, which is visited by four English children via the back of a wardrobe, has been beset with an eternal winter, thanks to the curse of the White Witch. When Lewis was writing The Chronicles of Narnia - of which the book is the second chapter - he often conversed with Lord of The Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis was more interested in explicit themes of Christianity than Tolkien, but just like The Rings' Middle-earth, Narnia is chockfull of fantastic talking beasts, dwarfs and giants. So it's not surprising that Aslan and the rest of the Narnia denizens also will appear in a live-action film, scheduled for release in late 2005.

THE LION KING

What's really interesting about Walt Disney's 10-year-old animated tale of deceit, betrayal, murder and revenge is its longevity beyond the silver screen. The story of young Simba's reclaiming his thrown from the murderous Scar was such a success at the box office (and a certain song about circles didn't hurt Elton John, either) that Disney tapped it for a first jump into Broadway theater. The show opened Nov. 13, 1997, at the New Amsterdam theater in Times Square, won six Tony Awards in 1998, and has been a fixture of the Great White Way since, proving that a lion can be king of the urban jungle, too.

Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or patrick.verel@augustachronicle.com.