Few people know this peculiar fact about The Wizard of Oz. And this oddity shares an interesting link to one of C.S. Lewis’ most familiar novels.
Filmmaking has changed greatly since 1939 when Dorothy first tapped together her ruby slippers. One of those modifications involves the treatment of animals.
Some of us are old enough to remember the initial appearance of the disclaimers: “No animals were injured in the making of this film.” Those announcements disappeared long ago, as people have long supposed the humane treatment of animals required.
As far as I know, no one has alleged the mistreatment of animals in The Wizard of Oz. But the odd fact mentioned above refers to one of the costumes worn by a major character in the film.
Bert Lahr played the Cowardly Lion, who continued acting until he died during the filming of The Night They Raided Minsky’s in 1968. Fortunately, he was in his prime while traipsing across Oz, because his costume weighed at least sixty pounds.
Apparently the costume designer was going for accuracy—in the case of the Cowardly Lion, if not for the citizens of Munchkinland. He opted for using an actual lion pelt. At least two, in fact, since there was a least one backup.
Cinema memorabilia often provides unbelievable dividends. MGM sold the primary costume in 1970 for a mere $2,400. In 2005, after some restoration by a taxidermist, the costume sold for $826,000. Nine years later, in 2014, it became the highest valued male performer’s costume, selling for $3,100,000.
It is quite fitting that Leo the Lion is the mascot for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. While there have been seven “Leos” since 1916, it is doubtful that any of them contributed their hide to costuming the Cowardly Lion.
What Has Oz to do with Narnia?
Oz and Narnia resemble one another in the obvious sense that both are fantasy lands. I’m ill-equipped to compare the two beyond that, having no desire to read about the former. Here you’ll find an interesting article that offers some insights into the realm of the Wizard. The literary critics of The Telegraph offer the following contrast.
Even so, [Oz is] a strangely amorphous creation, originally reached by cyclone but in later books by shipwreck (twice), by earthquake and by simply getting lost. As a fantasy land, it has none of the depth or authority of Tolkien’s Middle Earth nor even the physicality of CS Lewis’s Narnia.
Reaching back to the turn of the millennia, you might enjoy reading “Oz vs. Narnia.” Comparing the promotion of the two realms on their respective hundredth and fiftieth anniversaries, the author finds Narnia’s treatment by HarperCollins wanting.
But however much the tribute to Oz exceeds the tribute to Narnia in sumptuousness, it can’t disguise the superiority of Lewis’ book. As a child, I loved Oz’s endless cavalcade of strange creatures and, especially, John R. Neil’s trippy art nouveau illustrations and extravagant marginalia; I still like the books today. But the first time I read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in second grade, I knew that I’d stumbled into a whole new league.
A Tale of Two Lions
The odd overlap in the two stories is not due to the prominent presence of lions in each world. The Cowardly Lion and Aslan have nothing in common, save perhaps, compassion for others.
But the real life costume of Oz’s lion does relate directly to one of Lewis’ most amazing fictional creations.
In the final Chronicle, The Last Battle, we find many people are led astray by a false prophet. There is a liar masquerading as the true king. The horror that he is able to mislead so many vulnerable souls is magnified by the fact that he too wears an obvious costume—the pelt of a lion.
Lewis’ account of the deception is skillful. One of the most brilliant aspects is that the “king” himself (a donkey) is actually tricked into playing the role by the true deceiver (an ape).
“All the same, Shift,” said Puzzle [the donkey], “even if the skin only belonged to a dumb, wild lion, oughtn’t we to give it a decent burial? I mean, aren’t all lions rather— well, rather solemn? Because of you know Who. Don’t you see?”
“Don’t you start getting ideas into your head, Puzzle,” said Shift. “Because, you know, thinking isn’t your strong point. We’ll make this skin into a fine warm winter coat for you.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’d like that,” said the Donkey. “It would look—I mean, the other Beasts might think—that is to say, I shouldn’t feel—”
“What are you talking about?” said Shift, scratching himself the wrong way up as Apes do.
“I don’t think it would be respectful to the Great Lion, to Aslan himself, if an ass like me went about dressed up in a lion-skin,” said Puzzle. “Now don’t stand arguing, please,” said Shift.
“What does an ass like you know about things of that sort? You know you’re no good at thinking, Puzzle, so why don’t you let me do your thinking for you?”
Obviously, a comparison between real and fictional characters wearing lion skins can only go so far. Still, I assume some readers will find the use of a lion’s pelt to camouflage a completely different species, to be a rather peculiar parallel between Oz and Narnia.