A Regal Homage to the King of the Forest

The Wizard of Oz is considered one of the most perfectly cast movies ever made. Despite initial cries of opposition from fans and the press, Judy Garland was young Dorothy Gale. Ray Bolger and Jack Haley embodied those two loveable clowns, the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman—characters that were endeared to theatergoers from generations prior because of a hit musical-comedy on Broadway. Frank Morgan was a blustering con artist in the person of the Wizard. Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton represented the appropriate balance of goodness and evil as Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West, respectively. But if ever there was an inspired pairing of an actor with a role, it would be Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion.

Born Irving Lahrheim on August 13, 1895, Bert Lahr came up through show business ranks on stages in the vaudeville circuit and in Broadway plays. While he didn’t have the physical good looks of a leading man, Lahr was a raucous comedian who could sing to hilarious effect and masterfully mimic foreign dialects for routines and parodies. At the time of The Wizard of Oz, Lahr had made a name for himself not only as a Broadway star but on radio and in more than a dozen films. His brand of physical buffoonery (over-the-top reactions, gestures, and noises) combined with his personal inferiority complex were well-suited to the part of the king of beasts who is just as timid as a kitten.

Lahr almost forfeited the role for which he will forever be remembered; he wanted a contractual guarantee that he would be employed on The Wizard of Oz for five weeks. M-G-M envisioned requiring his services for just three weeks but Lahr was prepared to walk. What the movie studio couldn’t have foreseen was just how tremendously complex making Oz come to life would truly be. In the end, Lahr got his guarantee—and worked a total of twenty-six weeks on the picture!

Fortunately, the Cowardly Lion wasn’t expected to cavort on all fours but would saunter erect, like a man (in fact, the character was informally known as “The Lion Man” among Oz crew members). Lahr’s daily transformation into character began with a 7 a.m. call in the make-up department. The actor arrived a few minutes early but was adamant about not climbing into the make-up chair until the clock struck precisely on the hour. The grueling process began with a bald cap and a make-up that concealed his own eyebrows, to be replaced by slanted, furry brows. Next was glued on a foam-rubber snout and overhanging jowls, from which black broom straws protruded as whiskers. The rubber appliances were painted over with orangey-colored make-up. Wearing a robe and long underwear, Lahr would arrive on the movie set “looking like a chicken,” as make-up artist Charles Schram recalled. Schram would help Lahr put on his lion mane (which was a wig) and aid him to don his lion costume.

After experimenting with a costume made of plush fabric accented with faux fur, it was decided that the Cowardly Lion would resemble a real lion as much as possible. And so, a costume was constructed from authentic African lion pelts. Various reports have estimated its weight anywhere from fifty to ninety pounds, but in 1939 Lahr was consistent in stating that his lion outfit weighed sixty pounds. Not that it mattered much; under the intense lighting required for Technicolor photography, the costume felt like more than a hundred pounds. Lahr complained that he felt like a dock laborer carrying an entire boat on his back. The pelts had a central zipper down the front and a zipper on each sleeve. The costume was also punctured throughout with small holes thought to provide the actor with some measure of ventilation. In his bald cap, wig, and facial appliances, Lahr couldn’t properly perspire. Encased in a sweltering wardrobe, he had to unzip the costume and roll it down to his feet every twenty minutes. For longer breaks, he could remove the suit completely.

Imagine the challenge of playing a fabled character from a beloved book, with the pressure of meeting the public’s expectations, and being required to sing, dance, and run with the handicap of such a cumbersome make-up and wardrobe. All the more amazing is that Lahr transcended his discomforting accoutrements to portray the Cowardly Lion in a manner that is funny, sympathetic, and appropriately fearful. His show-stopping song, “If I Were King of the Forest,” is a cinematic classic of musical-comedy. His shadow boxing, ad-lib quips (such as “Unusual weather we’re havin’, ain’t it?”) and his moments of exaggerated terror are all unique “Lahrisms.”

As we now well know, the secret of The Wizard of Oz is that Dorothy and her companions already possess the qualities they desire most—although those traits have been denied, suppressed, or unrealized until they manifest over the course of their collective journey. By the conclusion of The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion has indeed proven himself virtuous. In his tearful goodbye to Dorothy, Bert Lahr weeps with humility as he tenderly confesses that he never would’ve found his courage without Dorothy’s support. In this defining moment, the Cowardly Lion not only addresses our own reservations about summoning personal valor, but he also affirms the importance of bonding with others to achieve our goals. At long last, the Cowardly Lion embraces his bravery.

Fans of The Wizard of Oz were excited to know that historic artifacts from this classic film were auctioned for sale on November 24, 2014, as part of “TCM Presents…There’s No Place Like Hollywood,” a special sale of Hollywood memorabilia in New York by Bonhams. Available to the highest bidder was Bert Lahr’s copy of TheWizard of Oz script, dated October 10, 1938; the Cowardly Lion’s spray pump of “Witch Remover”; and, most glorious of all, the original costume worn by Lahr throughout The Wizard of Oz!

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