The new controversy began when the auction house, Bonhams, put Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion costume up for bid.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” One of the most famous lines from one of the most famous movies that had the most famous song which also included some of the most famous movie characters in the history of film. Whew! That’s a lot for one movie, but MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz has it all.
For those of you who have been living on another planet, The Wizard of Oz is the classic movie masterpiece, based on the 1900 L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, that was brought to life through controversy and set the stage for a then 16-year old Judy Garland to rise to stardom with her performance of the award-winning song Over the Rainbow. The movie also starred Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion and Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz.
Yes, controversy did surround the production of The Wizard of Oz and recently a little more came to light. The production was first marred by the fact it had not one, not two or even three, but four directors. Richard Thorpe was fired after a couple of weeks on set. George Cukor came next and filled in for three days when Victor Fleming took over the helm. He lasted four months, was asked to replace Cukor on Gone with the Wind so King Vidor finished the film.
Directors weren’t the only controversy in the film. Buddy Ebsen (Beverly Hillbillies) was hired to be the Tin Man but ten days into filming he suffered a terrible reaction to the aluminum make-up being used to create his Tin Man. He was admitted to the hospital in critical condition, finally being replaced by Jack Haley.
The new controversy began when the auction house, Bonhams, put Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion costume up for bid. On their website description of the costume, the site says the costume was put together with, among things, real lion skin and fur. Yes, producers of the movie allowed the costume designers to create the Cowardly Lion costume using real lion.
There is no condoning of this here. No excuses are being made, just pointing out the era of Hollywood back then. Putting together the special effects for a movie such as The Wizard of Oz, back in 1939, was something of a miracle. Creating the tornado that swept Dorothy to Oz, the sets built, the magic and wizardry were state of the art at the time. This includes the costumes made for the movie.
So, when the costume (there were actually more than one) was created, it was made of a mixture of human hair and lion fur and hide. Per Bonham’s description page, “…a custom figure featuring a photo-realistic head sculpture cast directly from actor Bert Lahr’s son replete with optical glass eyes and Italian human hair wig & mane and footwear constructed out of lion pelt.”
But this was back in the 1930s. Today’s Hollywood absolutely would not be able to get away with something of this nature. We have come so far from those days. The Cowardly Lion costume itself was not easy to maneuver in. The face of the lion was probably the easiest to apply as it was glued directly to Bert Lahr’s face. The rest of the costume was a bear to wear. Lahr’s son Herbert spoke about his father’s trials when it came to getting into the costume, “The Lion’s suit was very interesting. It was a real lion skin, and it weighed 60 pounds. My dad had to be in it all day, he couldn’t eat because of the way the mask was, so he had to eat his lunch through a straw.”
Amazingly enough (or perhaps not given the fact that the Library of Congress states The Wizard of Oz is the most seen film in movie history) the Cowardly Lion costume fetched over $3.1 million when it was sold. This price is the highest paid for a costume worn by a male performer in the history of Hollywood movies. Not bad for a lion who didn’t think he had enough courage to venture down the yellow brick road. Oh my!