Courage for Sale: Oz's Cowardly Lion Costume Heads to The Auction Block


Many of us grew up watching The Wizard of Oz on its annual television outing. We were mesmerized by the terrible tornado and were awed along with Dorothy when she opened the door to her farmhouse to realize she had been transported to a Technicolor place somewhere over the rainbow. We were charmed by Glinda the Good Witch, who presided over the miniature Munchkins. The Wicked Witch of the West, who commanded a fleet of Winged Monkeys, was a terrifying menace, but thankfully Dorothy wasn't alone on her journey to find the great Wizard. Of Dorothy's three traveling companions, fans may best recall actor Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion for his comical attempts at bullying the Scarecrow and Tin Man, his blubbering wails when Dorothy slaps him and his determination to help rescue Dorothy from peril. Ultimately, the Cowardly Lion discovered his courage needn't be symbolized by the medal awarded to him by the Wizard. Like the others, he already possessed the capacity for true bravery.

Now Bonhams auction house has partnered with Turner Classic Movies to offer artifacts from The Wizard of Oz for sale on November 24, 2014, in New York. The special event, "TCM Presents...There's No Place Like Hollywood," will include movie memorabilia from Tinsel Town's golden age, highlights of which will be several rarities associated with the Cowardly Lion.

Featured in the sale will be Bert Lahr's original Wizard of Oz script, dated October 10, 1938. The script has a direct provenance to Lahr's family and was recently seen on TV's Antiques Roadshow. When the Cowardly Lion enters the Haunted Forest on a mission to destroy the Wicked Witch, he brings with him for protection a spray pump marked "Witch Remover." This same prop will be offered in the Bonhams auction. But most importantly, Lahr's original Wizard of Oz wardrobe will be available to the bidder who has the fortitude to preserve and honor this iconic costume.

In actuality, the Cowardly Lion suit is constructed from African lion pelts and was designed by M-G-M's leading couture visionary, Gilbert Adrian. Adrian was best known for setting fashion trends by dressing Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford. The Wizard of Oz was a favorite boyhood story of his, and he relished the opportunity to let his imagination flow beyond the confines of conventional boundaries.

To the best of his ability, Adrian conceived the Cowardly Lion costume with a measure of comfort: a zipper runs down the front like a jumpsuit, and zippers on either arm allowed Lahr to smoke a cigarette between takes without using his lion's paw. Small holes uniformly punctured throughout the hide were Adrian's effort to provide Lahr with ventilation. Even so, the costume was stifling under the intensely hot lighting required for Technicolor photography in the late 1930s.

When the Cowardly Lion costume was discovered in one of the oldest buildings on the M-G-M lot -- where The Wizard of Oz was filmed in late 1938 and early 1939 -- it was in need of careful repair and restoration to most closely return it to its original state. James Comisar, the present owner of the Cowardly Lion, assembled a team of experts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to meticulously conserve the costume. Bert Lahr's son Herbert -- who bore a strong resemblance to his dad -- allowed a mold of his face to be cast in order to create a sculpted head to complement the costume. A flowing mane, painstakingly hand-crafted using thousands of hair strands, completed the effect and magically revived the Cowardly Lion to appear as though he just stepped off of the Yellow Brick Road.

According to the Library of Congress, The Wizard of Oz is the most watched film of all time. American Film Institute ranks Oz as the #1 fantasy film. If you have the brains, heart and nerve (not to mention a few bucks . . . "Put 'em up. Put 'em up!"), you could own an artifact from Hollywood's most regal and enduring icon of bravery -- the Cowardly Lion.

Jay Scarfone and William Stillman are the authors of The Wizard of Oz: The Official 75th Anniversary Companion. To purchase a copy, click here.