When it comes to making movie magic, all sorts of different spells are used to conjure up the images you see on the screen. Whether it's practical effects, CG, or a variety of other methods, Hollywood resorts to many different different tactics to make the movies come to life. That's certainly the case with 1939's spellbinding The Wizard of Oz. The fantastical masterpiece is an incredible achievement, particularly when it comes to its make-up, art direction, and costume designs. Many aspects of the film's imagery are iconic today for a reason. However, when it comes to one aspect of Oz in particular, it wasn't movie magic. It was the real deal. Specifically, we're talking about the hairy costume used to bring the Cowardly Lion to the screen. Indeed, to create the effect of the famously scaredy-cat lion, real-life lion fur was used to make the pelt look authentic. Oh my!
On the auction site Bonhams, where the costume was being sold, someone on Reddit dug through the description of Bert Lahr's signature costume and they discovered a surprising and potentially upsetting piece of information. Apparently, the Cowardly Lion costume seen in the classic film was constructed from real lion skin and fur. The attire was reportedly made from a wide mix of human hair and lion fur and hide, with the hair/mane coming from the former while the body fur itself (including on the feet) came from the latter. While the fur does look realistic, one probably wouldn't guess it was real.
Since we're talking about the very early days of moviemaking here, there was probably only one (maybe two) costumes on hand for the actors. There has been a lot written about the difficulty of making this movie, particularly when it comes to the costumes. For instance, the Tin Man's silver sheen was apparently so toxic that it caused actor Jack Haley to go to the hospital. Therefore, the methods of making the Cowardly Lion's signature costume are believably extreme too, using real-life lion fur and skin to make the human-sized lion a reality. As a piece of classic movie history, you don't have to imagine that it sold for a pretty penny. The final bid drew in a little over $3 million, which honestly sounds low. You might think that it'd go a little higher.
Naturally, if The Wizard of Oz were made today, there's no way in hell they would allow this to happen. PETA would be surely slamming down every door at MGM, throwing protests galore because of this information. But The Wizard of Oz was originally released back in 1939, which means that such animal ethics and animal protection groups weren't around back then (at least, not to the same size and scale they are today). Also, it should be noted that in the '30s, fake fur designs weren't what they are today. That might've played a factor in using real opposed to fake lion fur while creating this classic costume.
In any case, when it came to making the Cowardly Lion's famous costume, it is safe to say that these designers weren't afraid to use the real thing.
Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.
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