Animals, Too, Are Movie Stars: the “Quo Vadis” Menagerie

Animals, Too, Are Movie Stars
Billboard Magazine April 7, 1951
by Sam Abbott

Quo Vadis Teems with Lions, Horses, Other Rare Stock Scouted by George W. Emerson thru Europe


The chariot chase through the hills of Rome.

Quo Vadis means “Whither goest thou?” and George W. Emerson, of Culver City Calif., who was “casting director” for the Christian-eating lions and other beasts in the $6,000,000 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer technicolor film production of that title, would have a quick answer: “All over Europe.”

For in assembling his animal fair he roamed North Africa, Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland and England chasing circuses and zoo keepers to obtain lions, fighting bulls, perfectly matched horses, barnyard fowls and a couple of well-fed cheetahs.

Emerson is the head animal trainer at the studio and by virtue of his position drew this assignment. It was to keep him traipsing over Europe for seven weeks in 1949 and 10 months in 1950. During that time the traveling, and buying, leasing and shipping of the animals cost the studio over $100,000.


Patricia Laffan with her well-fed friends.

The animals—about 40 in all—were used in only a few of the scenes in Rome, where the story was filmed. However, they were climactical and, of course, most important. The shots included those of the throwing of the Christians to the lions, slaying of he wild bull by the faithful bodyguard as it charged Deborah Kerr tied to a stake in the arena, parade of triumph in which Robert Taylor drove his chariot before the Emperor Nero’s palace, and a royal court scene in which two cheetahs lolled at the feet of Patricia Laffan as the Empress Poppaea.

Emerson’s first trip to Europe in 1949 was to survey the animal situation. He found he could obtain the necessary animals after visiting a number of circuses. This report was made to the studio’s location department with the result that the company went abroad for the actual filming in 1950. The trainer’s travels took him to Dublin, where he visited the greatest lion breeding farm in all Europe. However, his contract for the animals was made with the Cirque Geant Bouglione in France.

Everything was thought in order and the company was set for the overseas assignment. Emerson believed, at that time, that his work last year would be only a matter of herding the animals together. He was to later learn what it was to make a fast trip over the Continent and to deal in krone, guilders, francs and lire to get the needed stock.

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Some of the uncooperative lions.

The first news that greeted him upon his arrival in Europe was bad. The Cirque Geant Bouglione manager had decided that he was unable to supply the lions at the price that had been agreed upon. However, they were available at another figure—much higher. Certainly a motion picture studio whose trademark for years has been Leo would have no trouble getting a few lions.

There was other stock to be obtained and Emerson worried over the thought that their owners might not supply them. However, in the case with Bouglione no contract had been signed because of a series of delays. The time was short and there was nothing else to do except to start looking.The possibility of the Coleman and Kayes Bros. Circus in England having suitable animals was ruled out. Emerson had checked with them the year before and the Lord George Sanger Circus, too.


In the arena.

Paris seemed to offer the best spot in which to start the quest and he arrived there only a few days after reaching Rome, his headquarters. Finding nothing in and around the French city, Emerson moved on to Schaffhausen, Switzerland, to again contact the owner of the Knie Circus. As nothing developed, he trainer took off to visit the Schumann Circus in Copenhagen and also to check on the Circus Belli. A trip through Sweden gave him an opportunity to look over the Trolle Rhodens Circus as well as the Cirkus Benneweis.

The pursuit seemed to be narrowing, but it still led up blind alleys. A report came to the Metro man that a circus in Russian occupied Austria had lions. But Emerson took his informer’s word for it and remained out of the Soviet limits. This later proved to be about the only lead that he did not follow thru.


On the prowl.

In Hamburg the chase seemed to be getting nearer its goal, for the problem was placed in the lap of the late Harry Williams, whose English circus had been on the road for 20 years. This show owner was familiar with the animal situation. Williams offered to help, but asked a few days to see what he could locate. Emerson, rather than stand around with the possibility of this contact going the way of the others, jumped to Amsterdam to check on the Cirkus Hagrenbeck.

Upon his return to Germany, Emerson found that Williams had moved his sow and had left no route. After following him for five days, the contact was again made. The American trainer learned one ting of value—only two shows, Mills and Kaie, had routes. The only way to find other shows was to find where they had been and try to figure where the might be going.


A Christian watches as the lions are brought into the arena.

The five days that passed were not lost. Williams explained that he was unable to make a deal for the animals on his show for the were the property of Eric Klant, a Dutch zoo keeper. However, Klant was due to visit he show any day. His trainer, Jean Michon, had been injured during a performance and he act was not appearing. Each day the lions did not perform, Klant was not paid.

Emerson found Klant agreeable to his proposition, and, in fact, he went all out for MGM. He would supply the lions from the Michon act as well as those handled by Gaston Bosman on the Circus Mikkenie in Italy and Fabienne Fleureau of the Circus Konrad touring Austria. In all there were 20 lions obtained in this deal.

A second transaction with Jim Roobe of the Circus Rancy in Lille, France, made two more lions available. By tapping 4 different sources, Emerson had 22 lions available for the Colosseum scene.


Some of the matched pairs of horses (with Robert Taylor and Norman Wooland).

After the contracts for the lions were made—and it was the lion’s share of his problem—Emerson set to work to get military remount-type horses for the chariot races. He needed matched pairs of blacks, chestnuts, bays and dappled grays. A search throughout Italy failed to turn up anything that could be used in the film. As technicolor cameras were used, the color of the animals was important. Emerson took a tip from the Italians, who buy horses for human consumption. Like the Romans, he went to Denmark for his horseflesh.

This trip took him to Alborg in the Northern tip of Denmark. There was little or no trouble in getting the horses here, for the section specializes in this livestock. Ten head were purchased and shipped by steamer to the Continent and by train to Rome.


Four elderly horses disguised by their trappings.

This did not complete the assignment for horses, as four perfectly matched white ones were wanted to pull a chariot in the parade before he emperor’s palace. There was one concession-they did not have to be as spirited as those used in the races. Emerson had sought them unsuccessfully in Ireland when he was en route to Denmark. He then decided to take his chances on finding them in Italy. The odds were against him, however, for there a horse was more valuable as a steak than a steed.

However, Emerson did locate four white horses that almost matched. They were old and their ribs were visible; they lacked he sparkle of royalty’s equines. One of them had been ridden by Benito Mussolini, but that claim to fame was of little value. Nevertheless, the horses were hitched to the chariot and their shortcomings covered with trappings. It was in this ornamented state that they they were filmed.


One of a number of bulls used in the arena with Buddy Baer.

With the lions and the horses provided, Emerson turned to the job of obtaining wild bulls that were to charge Deborah Kerr, lashed to a stake in the arena. This was a climactic scene with the Empress being rescued by her faithful servant, Ursus, played by Buddy Baer.

The untamed cattle had been contracted in 1949 in Portugal and it was only a matter of getting clearance to ship them to Rome. After unraveling red tape they were on a boat bound for the location. The studio wanted “wild bulls” and certainly got what they bargained for. In Rome the stock broke out of the pens several times and keeping them there was a problem that had not been covered by the agreement.

With this exception, the bulls were not a problem. In Rome it was the trainers. To get the stock it was necessary to import bull fighters and their assistants. However, a double for
Buddy Baer as Ursus was needed and found in the troupe of six acrobats that also arrived with the entourage. Visas for the Portuguese had to be arranged and this, too, was one of Emerson’s many duties.


Robert Taylor and one of the Cheetahs.

Emerson’s departments were in order. The cheetahs had been obtained from a game preserve in Africa and were on the scene ready for work. One of the two was already a seasoned veteran in the movies, having appeared in King Solomon’s Mines and here again was cast with Deborah Kerr. In the King Solomon film the cheetah is in a jungle scene, but in Quo Vadis it and its partner loll amid the comforts of royalty.

The Metro trainer believes cheetahs to be gentle when well fed. And the film company took ample precaution to see that they had all they could eat before going on the set.


Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) pats one of her pets.

The cheetahs fared better than most of the animals in the movie. Upon his return to the States after the foreign filming, Emerson brought them along and left them with his brother, Ralph, who had an animal farm in Hartford, Conn.

Altho Emerson spent 10 weeks in Europe in 1949, his travels that year were to take him to another part of the world. The trip to Siam took eight weeks. Flying over and returning by boat, he brought back a shipment of five elephants. Before leaving he took precautions to bring his assignment back in good shape—he had a supply of oat hay sent to Hong Kong for feeding on the trip to America. This is a practice now generally followed by animal buyers doing business in he Orient.


Oxen blocking a racing chariot.

Emerson has worked animals at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer since 1932 when he joined he staff to handle a problem African rhinoceros that was giving the studio a headache. It had been purchased for a sequence in a Tarzan picture featuring Johnny Weissmuller.

Before joining the movie company, Emerson had been with Sella-Floto, Al G. Barnes and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses as an animal man. However, he had decided to make Los Angeles his home and was then working as a prop man at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

News of the studio’s trouble with the Rhino spread in circus circles. The late Walter McClain, who had he Barnes elephants on the coast, and Herb (Pony) Cook, who had Barsky’s chimps, heard it and recommended Emerson for the job.

Sheep graze by the Appian Way.

Sheep graze by the Appian Way.

If Emerson could handle the rhino he was the man the studio wanted. MGM had just about reached the end of its rope. Since the animal would not perform, a robot had been built to take its place. However, the mechanical jungle creation, that cost a neat sum, also refused to work.

When Emerson was hired he immediately went to work on he problem and in three weeks had the rhino doing what the script directed. The animal went on the set and ran thru a jungle setting with Emerson, doubling for Weissmuller, jumping on its back and simulating a lethal dagger thrust into the heart. The film was completed on schedule MGM had its thriller. Emerson had a job.

Since then, Emerson has handled the zoo, which at one time during the war had approximately 50 animals. When shooting schedules were posted, the needed animals were bought to avoid delays. He worked the mountain lion in Sequoia and the water buffalo that had important parts in the filming of Pearl Buck’s Good Earth.

Emerson’s contacts with other animal trainers have proved invaluable in assisting the

How did they do this? Was it a man in a lioness suit?

How did they do this? Was it a man in a lioness suit?

studio to line up the proper men for jobs. He and the late Louis Roth trained a tiger riding act that was used in O’Shaughnessy’s Boy, featuring Wallace Beery.

The studio zoo reached its peak when The Yearling was being filmed. MGM had elephants, chimps, lions, dogs, coons, skunks and deer. The deer were of every stage from fawn up. They varied in age so that when a day’s shooting covered a month or two in the story, the animal had to show growth corresponding in the elapsed time.

The elephants that were kept in the area adjoining Emerson’s home across from Lot 3 were Queenie, Sally and Happy. There were seven elephants brought to this country, all under three years of age. Four of them died and the three remaining were trained not only for pictures but for the circus routine they now do, for the fourth year, on Polack Bros. Circus. When MGM decided to reduce its zoo stock, the trio was bought by a concern, Elephants Inc. In the corporation are Frank Whitbeck, head of Metro’s advertising department; Louis Goebel, owner of an animal farm at Thousand Oaks, Calif. And Emerson.

????The next films Emerson is slated to supply are Robinson Crusoe and White Madness. In Crusoe there will be dogs, cats and parrots. Emerson has been training the parrots for three years. Madness was only recently assigned. It has a Northwest locale and in this film the trainer will put a flock of wolves thru their paces.

When Quo Vadis appears in theaters Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr will be featured on the marquees, but in the film—and playing important roles—will be Emerson’s animals—movie stars, too.



Other photos:

Lions and the bull.

The cheetahs.

Some of the horses.

About giraffe44

I became a Robert Taylor fan at the age of 15 when his TV show, "The Detectives" premiered. My mother wanted to watch it because she remembered Mr. Taylor from the thirties. I took one look and that was it. I spent the rest of my high school career watching Robert Taylor movies on late night TV, buying photos of him, making scrapbooks and being a typical teenager. College, marriage and career intervened. I remember being sad when Mr. Taylor died. I mailed two huge scrapbooks to Ursula Thiess. I hope she got them. Time passed, retirement, moving to Florida. Then in 2012 my husband Fred pointed that there were two Robert Taylor movies that evening on Turner Classic Movies--"Ivanhoe" and "Quentin Durward." I watched both and it happened all over again. I started this blog both for fans and for people who didn't know about Robert Taylor. As the blog passes 200,000 views I'm delighted that so many people have come by and hope it will help preserve the legacy of this fine actor and equally good man.
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6 Responses to Animals, Too, Are Movie Stars: the “Quo Vadis” Menagerie

  1. Thank You, Judith, for the interesting note about the film”Quo Vadis” and animal-“superstars”! This film is very entertaining and there did a great job with animals.I especially liked the scene with leopards! Robert Taylor is an excellent rider and proved it in many of his films! As Robert was able to be in this movie in excellent shape, because he was in Rome medical operation hernia?


  2. giraffe44 says:

    Hi, Anna. Mr. Taylor had the hernia operation in San Francisco after he returned home from filming “Quo Vadis.” He did look wonderful in the film.


  3. SusanaG says:

    Hi Judith, what an informative post! Certainly animals played a big part in Quo Vadis and I’m glad I learned such interesting things about them. Thank you for bringing a topic like this into focus, which is a rather unusual topic in light of all of what’s been written about this particular film, isn’t it?


  4. giraffe44 says:

    Su, there are so many great animal stories. A bull got loose in the cafeteria. The lions wouldn’t move in the hot sun so they had to starve them until they’d look fierce and move into the arena. Otherwise they turned around and went back. Some of the scenes with the bull actually used a cow. There’s a great anecdote of someone saying “move the camera, you can see the udder.” Mervyn Leroy on top of a 30′ pole asking how high lions can jump. Being an animal fanatic, I couldn’t resist this article–even though typing it took forever. Good to hear from you.


  5. SusanaG says:

    Really? Love those stories, Judith. Please, post a Second Part with all those!


    • giraffe44 says:

      Hi, Su, I will if I can track them down. I’ve read so much that it’s often hard to figure out where something came from. But I’ll try to put some together–animal stories are always great.


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