Friday, July 05, 2013

"If I Were King of the Forest!"

The Cowardly Lion's song in the 1939 MGM film says it all: "Yeah, it's sad, believe me Missy / When you're born to be a sissy / Without the vim and verve ... I'm afraid there's no denyin' / I'm just a dandylion / A fate I don't deserve." Nevertheless, the character of the Cowardly Lion was placed on the cover of the original 1900 edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. On the cover the Lion is shown wearing the green spectacles required of all visitors who enter the dazzlingly brilliant Emerald City.
L. Frank Baum gives the Lion a dramatic entrance: "Just as he spoke there came from the forest a terrible roar, and the next moment a great Lion bounded into the road. With one blow of his paw he sent the Scarecrow spinning over and over to the edge of the road, and then he struck at the Tin Woodman with his sharp claws. But, to the Lion's surprise, he could make no impression on the tin, although the Woodman fell over in the road and lay still. Little Toto, now that he had an enemy to face, ran barking toward the Lion, and the great beast had opened his mouth to bite the dog, when Dorothy, fearing Toto would be killed, and heedless of danger, rushed forward and slapped the Lion upon his nose as hard as she could, while she cried out:
    "Don't you dare to bite Toto! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, a big beast like you, to bite a poor little dog!"
    "I didn't bite him," said the Lion, as he rubbed his nose with his paw where Dorothy had hit it.
    "No, but you tried to," she retorted. "You are nothing but a big coward."
    "I know it," said the Lion, hanging his head in shame. "I've always known it. But how can I help it?"
One of W. W. Denslow's images of the Lion seems to capture the exhausted creature's comments in the MGM movie when he explains to his new friends that he cannot fall asleep:
Cowardly Lion: Look at the circles under my eyes. I haven't slept in weeks!
Tin Woodsman: Why don't you try counting sheep?
Cowardly Lion: That doesn't do any good, I'm afraid of 'em.
Here's a few Lion images of the early Wizard of Oz stage productions. 
Enter Bert Lahr, an actual Leo being born on August 13, 1895. Fresh from a theatrical career in burlesque and vaudeville, Lahr's vibrant portrayal of the Lion was a hit. His two singing solos in the movie might just balance his having to endure the heat the hot studio lights while wearing a heavy costume fashioned with real lion fur. Now, that's hot.
The image of the Cowardly Lion goes through myriad of manifestations in later books including his most recent homage as Brrr in Wicked author Gregory Maquire's A Lion Among Men.
For illustrator Aaron Miller, the task was to put faerie-esque wings onto the large furry Cowardly Lion. His solution was to imagine a fuzzy moth with wings detailed with lion paw markings. According to the illustrator regarding the Lion: "This was one of my favorites. I mixed the lion with a moth. Moths just have that fuzziness that was perfect for the lion character."
The first rendition was a tad scary until Aaron was able to provide the Cowardly Lion with some endearing eyes.
David D.J. Rau
Director of Education and Outreach

David D.J. Rau coordinates as well as participates in the Museum’s October creative endeavors. You can contact him at

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