Eliza and Sally – Similarities & Differences.

Two of the biggest musical films of the twentieth century appear, on the face of it, to be two completely different works dealing with two different subjects.  However, the similarities between the two productions go much further than them both being successful musicals.  Scrape beneath the surface and you begin to see that the movies have much more in common than is commonly believed.  Yet there are sufficient differences between the two productions to mark them as two completely independent works that are different in subject matter and tale.

I will begin this comparison and contrast by first of all examining the similarities between the two films.  The second half of this essay will concentrate on the main differences between the two.  I will only examine the main differences because, as more examination of the two films will uncover unlimited differences that could go on forever.

The first similarity is glaringly obvious – both stories are musicals that feature a central female character.  My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle dominates every scene she appears in throughout the film – even if Audrey Hepburn’s acting ability has been subject to criticism during the summer[i].  Similarly Liza Minnelli slipped into Sally Bowles’ character worryingly easily to produce an Oscar winning performance playing the second rate singer in a seedy back-street club.  Whilst Hepburn’s performance didn’t qualify even for an Oscar nomination her magical transformation from street flower-seller to sophisticated lady of society still has the power to transfix audiences of all classes.  Both Eliza and Sally are the focal points of the films with male characters playing catch-up and ultimately being made to look inferior to the two women.

The second similarity is more social.  Both films were set immediately before a catastrophic period of change.  My Fair Lady is set in Edwardian London just a few years before the First World War.  It was a time of Suffragettes and calls for governments to become involved in trying to alleviate the poverty and injustice of the lower classes.  The new Liberal governments were challenging the very structure of British high society with reform of the House of Lords[ii] and there was a rise in membership and expectation of Trades Unions.  The unrest was Europe wide and ended in the carnage of the Great War.  Ironically, the outcome of the peace talks at the end of the war led to Germany being punished financially and this in turn led to the rise of the Nazi Party just about the time Sally was asking Brian if he had “taken on the whole of the Nazi Party” and singing that “life is a Cabaret ol’ chum, come to the Cabaret”

A further similarity is that both films were based on books (Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Joe Masteroff’s Cabaret) that were both to be performed on Broadway before being transferred to film.  Consequently both productions can be said to have the same heritage.  Linked to this is the actual subject matter.

The chief similarity between the two films is that running through both the books, plays and films is the central theme of morality in general and female morals in particular.  Is it right that a Professor of Phonetics should take it upon himself to transform (or mould) a dirty flower seller into a lady of society?  It is uncomfortable to contemplate and just as uncomfortable to watch.  And the reason it makes us uncomfortable is that this is not just an exercise in social engineering (which is suspicious) but it is also about clearly declaring that those who are upper class are better than those of the lower classes.  This is what Bernard Shaw was commenting on.  And it is what Professor Higgins is attempting to do – not only raising a flower girl to the higher ranks of society, but also making her a better person in the process whereas Liza was always a ‘good’ person – “I’m a good girl, I am”.

Whilst My Fair Lady lacks the essential moral dilemmas relating to sex and race that is found in Cabaret, it still has at its core the question of what is right and what is wrong.  Is it right that Professor Higgins treats Eliza as if she is a third rate citizen?  Does turning Eliz into a lady automatically make her a good person?

Mrs. Higgins: However did you learn good manners with my son around?
Eliza Doolittle: It was very difficult. I should never have known how ladies and gentlemen really behaved, if it hadn’t been for Colnel Pickering. He always showed what he thought and felt about me as if I were something better than a common flower girl. You see, Mrs. Higgins, apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. I shall always be a common flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a common flower girl, and always will. But I know that I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering, because he always treats me like a lady, and always will[iii].

This is all about behaviour – behaviour that is proper and behaviour that is wrong.  Professor Higgins’ experiment to change the way Eliza speaks is the first, but to him, important step in transforming her into a lady.  To most (but sadly not all) this is wrong and, more to the point, unnecessary as Eliza was already a lady in that she was already a good person.  It was he who is in the wrong, not Eliza.

Sally Bowles, on the other hand, convinces us that she is promiscuous and proud of her ability to procure men from all classes –

“I’m going to be a great film star! That is, if booze and sex don’t get me first”.

Whilst Eliza would have been shocked at Sally’s attitude towards life, Sally realises that being promiscuous is not the same as being immoral.

Sally: Of course, I may bring a boyfriend home occasionally, but only occasionally, because I do think that one ought to go to the man’s room if one can. I mean, it doesn’t look so much as if one expected it, does it?

When Sally’s father sends her a telegram she seems hurt that her father refuses to use more than ten words.  That, for Sally, is immoral.

Sally: Ten words exactly. After ten it’s extra. You see, Daddy thinks of these things. If I had leprosy, there’d be a cable: “Gee, kid, tough. Sincerely hope nose doesn’t fall off. Love.”

It is these ethical dilemmas that run through both productions.  In Cabaret we have the moral problems associated with abortion –

Brian Roberts: You did it, didn’t you?
Sally: Did what, darling?
Brian Roberts: The abortion. In God’s name, why?
Sally: One of my whims?

along with race (Natalia Landauer) and wealth inequality (Maximilian von Heune).  Sally’s sexual promiscuity and Brian’s bisexuality are treated with an attitude that was unusual in the 1930s –

Sally: Bri, listen… we’re practically living together, so if you only like boys I wouldn’t dream of pestering you.
[pause]
Sally: Well, do you sleep with girls or don’t you?
Brian: Sally! You don’t ask questions like that!
Sally: I do.

Set against these personal moral issues is the continual presence of a growing Nazi presence – perhaps the most immoral issue of them all.

The differences between the two films are not as great as you would imagine.  When I first saw this question I imagined that the contrasts between the films would be easy to identify and the similarities would be the difficult part.  There are, however several striking differences.

The first difference is in the two characters of Eliza Doolittle and Sally Bowles.  Whereas Eliza arouses in us a sense of pity and innocence, Sally is seen as self-confident if a little tragic.  Whilst Eliza struggles with her pronunciation, Sally seems to be trying a little too hard to convince us that she is an advocate of a permissive society.  Eliza is meek and forced to fight her corner.  Sally takes on society and other people with a confidence and contempt that makes us, well, a little frightened of her.  Eliza is suspicious of kindness –

Professor Henry Higgins: Have some chocolates, Eliza.
Eliza Doolittle: [halting, tempted] ‘Ow do I know what might be in ’em? I’ve ‘eard o’ girls bein’ drugged by the likes o’ you.
Professor Henry Higgins: [Takes a chocolate and breaks it in half] Pledge of good faith. I’ll take one half…
[puts one half into his mouth and bolts it; then pops the other half into Eliza’s mouth]
Professor Henry Higgins: And you take the other. You’ll have boxes of them, barrels of them. You’ll live on them, eh?
Eliza Doolittle: [Eliza chews hesitatingly] I wouldn’t’ve et it, only I’m too ladylike to take it out o’ me mouth.
Professor Henry Higgins: Think of it, Eliza. Think of chocolates. And taxis…! And gold! And diamonds!
Eliza Doolittle: Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-oo! I don’t want no gold and no diamonds! I’m a good girl, I am!

Sally is suspicious of nothing and doesn’t consider her acts as being wrong –

Brian: Screw Maximilian!
Sally: I do.
Brian: So do I.
Sally: You two bastards!
Brian: Two? Two? Shouldn’t that be three?

Sally is not the girl your mother would like you to have as a friend.  Eliza would be welcome to the house at any time – two very different characters.

Whilst the core theme running through both musicals is morality, the way in which moral issues are addressed are strikingly different.  My Fair Lady investigates the ethics of social engineering whilst Cabaret concentrates on sexual female in both male and female.  Professor Higgins’ transformation of Eliza into a lady of high society and Sally’s sexual promiscuity are two moral issues that are quite different.  When comparing the two films it is difficult to resist the temptation to decide which of the two characters is the most immoral.  Is it Sally with her sexual exploitations that pale into insignificance when viewed against the background of Nazi violence and anti-Semitism?  Or is it the arrogant Professor who treats Eliza with contempt who transforms into a tragic figure when we (and he) discovers that he loves Eliza and cannot live with just her voice recordings alone –

Professor Henry Higgins: You see, the great secret, Eliza, is not a question of good manners or bad manners, or any particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls. The question is not whether I treat you rudely, but whether you’ve ever heard me treat anyone else better.
Eliza Doolittle: I don’t care how you treat me. I don’t mind your swearing at me. I shouldn’t mind a black eye; I’ve had one before this. But I won’t be passed over!
Professor Henry Higgins: Well then, get out of my way, for I won’t stop for you. You talk about me as though I were a motor bus.
Eliza Doolittle: So you are a motor bus! All bounce and go, and no consideration for anybody. But I can get along without you. Don’t you think I can’t!
Professor Henry Higgins: I know you can. I told you you could.
[pause]
Professor Henry Higgins: [quietly] You’ve never wondered, I suppose, whether… whether I could get along without you.
Eliza Doolittle: Well, you have my voice on your phonograph. When you feel lonesome without me you can turn it on. It has no feelings to hurt.
Professor Henry Higgins: I… I can’t turn your soul on.
Eliza Doolittle: Ooh, you are a devil. You can twist the heart in a girl the same way some fellows twist her arms to hurt her!

Just as morality expresses itself in the main theme running through both films – the morality of class in My Fair Lady and personal and sexual morals in Cabaret, morality – that is what is right and what is wrong is captured in what makes the productions what they are  –  the music.

In general it can be said that the music and lyrics of Cabaret are more ‘edgy’, more ‘tight’ and more risqué than those of My Fair Lady.  The genre of music is also different.  In My Fair Lady the class issue expresses itself in the songs:  ‘Wouldn’t it be Lovely’ with its references to ‘All I want is a room somewhere,  Far away from the cold night air’ shouts social injustice for homeless people – and those with a yearning for, but without the means to pay for chocolates.  ‘Ladies Ascot Day’ or more properly the Ascot Gavotte is a blatant expose of class division at its best or worst.  ‘Why can’t the English’ should be more correctly named ‘Why can’t the Upper Class English’ and the toe tapping ‘Get me to the Church on time’ should be ‘Get me to the working class Church on time’.

Eliza’s ultimate triumph over Professor Higgins is expressed in ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face’ where the pompous and arrogant Higgins realises that Eliza’s physical presence cannot be substituted by a recording on his phonograph.  ‘An Ordinary Man’ again addresses the question of what is ‘ordinary’ as well as posing the question of what is exceptional.  The question is still posed by songwriters today – ‘Love of the Common People’ by Paul Young and Pulp’s ‘Common People’.  The question remains unanswered – can only the working class be ‘ordinary’?  And pity poor Freddy who realises that love cuts across class divides when he haunts the road in which Eliza lives as he belts out the lamentable ‘On the Street where You Live’.  Poor Freddy – pity the toff who falls for a lowly flower girl.

The morality of the existence of differences in class are found in the general theme of My Fair Lady and the dialogue between the characters as they wrestle with class divisions is enhanced and supported by the lyrics of the songs.

Similarly the brooding nature of the examination of sexual freedom and morals runs through ‘Cabaret’ and, like ‘My Fair Lady’ the songs and the lyrics reinforce the dilemma of whether sexual licence is a truly moral issue  – whether sleeping around and having same sex partners is right or wrong.

From the very first song, ‘Wellcommen[iv]’ we enter the strange, surreal world of cabaret – ‘do you feel good?’  ‘We bet you do’, ‘Leave your troubles outside’.  It carries on throughout the songs.  ‘So What?’ – how many mothers have had that thrown at them by unruly teenagers.  ‘So What?’ is the prime example of the liberal attitude of the patrons of cabaret and the characters of ‘Cabaret’.  The theme continues:  ‘Don’t tell Mamma’ – why not?  Would Mamma not approve even though Mamma probably got up to the same things herself.  And let’s throw in a little sexual deviance in the form of a threesome – ‘Two Ladies’ – shock horror, some men have sex with two ladies……. I wonder what the Romans would think of that – especially as ‘they like it’.

It’s quite a disappointment to find out that the gift was a ‘pineapple’ – or was it simply a fruit?

Poor Sally, used, abused and walked on by her succession of boyfriends.  Maybe the next one will give her what she wants – security and love:

Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky
Maybe this time, he’ll stay
Maybe this time
For the first time
Love won’t hurry away

He will hold me fast
I’ll be home at last
Not a loser anymore
Like the last time
And the time before

Everybody loves a winner
So nobody loved me;
‘Lady Peaceful,’ ‘Lady Happy,’
That’s what I long to be
All the odds are in my favour
Something’s bound to begin
It’s got to happen, happen sometime
Maybe this time I’ll win

I hope she does – or did.  Sadly the ‘only thing bound to begin was the second world war.

“Money is the root of all evil” is probably the most widely misquote of all time.  Taken from the Bible, what the passage actually says is “the LOVE of money is the root of all evil” – cue ‘Money’

[EMCEE]
If you happen
To be rich,
[GIRLS]
…….Ooooh
[EMCEE]
And you feel like a
Night’s enetertainment,
[GIRLS]
…Money
[EMCEE]
You can pay for a
Gay escapade.

Money can buy you love contrary to what the Beatles told us.

There are a few songs from the Broadway production that never made it into the film – the most notable being ‘Married’ that is heard only on the radio in the background during one of the scenes.  Marriage – commitment, loyalty and monogamous binding.  No wonder it is only heard in the background.

In conclusion it can be seen that these two highly successful films have both similarity and differences.  The central theme of morality, a questioning of what is right and what is wrong runs through both productions.  In my opinion this is such a strong feature that it overshadows and overpowers the differences that are apparent between the two productions.  Yes, the two central characters are totally different in innocence and outlook.  But they both struggle with the issue of love and devotion and they are both tragic characters – Eliza by chance and Sally by choice.  The two films are comparable more than they are contrasts.  But perhaps the only certainty about the two works are that they are destined to remain favourites with the cinema-going public and will always be remembered as being classic pieces of film that have and will continue to influence writers, directors and actors.  Sally and Eliza – what gals!


[i][i] ‘Talentless and Twee?  Not the Audrey I knew’ Frederick Raphael, Daily Telegraph, London, Tue. August 10th 2010.

[ii] Lloyd George’s 1911 Parliament Act created Life Peers and restricted the Bills that could be rejected by the House of Lords.

[iii] All quotations taken from the Internet Movie Database – www.imbd.com

[iv] All Lyrics from ST Lyrics – www.stlyrics.com