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The International Writers Magazine: Film Space

Variety Lights
Dan Schneider

If you have ever wondered why Federico Fellini's film Eight and a half was called Eight and a half, the reason is simple. It was the eighth full film he had directed, till that point, along with a half film credit, which was his debut effort, 1950's co-direction in the 97 minute long black and white film Variety Lights (Luci Del Varietà), along with Neo-Realist film directing veteran Alberto Lattuada.
The film's story and screenplay, however, were both penned by Fellini, and the most manifest thing about the film is its similarity to the Hollywood film All About Eve, released the same year- albeit it is a bit grittier, more realistic and less melodramatically star-driven, and its influence on Fellini's own later La Strada, as well as presaging many Fellini trademarks and tics. It is not a great film, but a thoroughly enjoying light bit of entertainment. Before this film, Fellini had mostly worked as a screenplay writer and script doctor. His most well known contribution prior to this film was on Roberto Rossellini's Open City.

Lattuada, by contrast, was a veteran who was considered a rising star in Neo-Realism, although he is considered a minor director by European film historians today. The co-directing credit has led critics to try to parse who directed what scene. The fact that both of the two leading ladies in the film were married to the directors has only heightened this confusion. Lattuada was married to Carla Del Poggio, the scheming Lilliana Antonelli, and Fellini was married to Giulieta Masina, who played Melina Amour, and later went on to international stardom as Gelsomina in La Strada, Cabiria in Nights Of Cabiria, and Juliet in Juliet Of The Spirits. Regardless of the credit for scenes, there is little doubt that this tale of a down and out collection of Italian Vaudevillians was close to Fellini's heart, and mirrored the obsessions that would stay in his work for decades. When asked about the 'controversy, Fellini often replied, as he did in the book I, Fellini: 'I have been asked many, many times about who really directed Variety Lights. Should it be counted as one of my films or as one of his? He counts it as one of his, and I count it as one of mine. We are both right.' In short, there is none of the real controversy surrounding this film's provenance as there is, say, in the directorial accreditation for The Third Man- Orson Welles' bearded film under Carol Reed, while Welles was blacklisted in Hollywood.

This film, despite its two female 'leads,' is really the tale of an aging small time con man and hustler named Checcho dal Monte (Peppino De Filippo), whose troupe is loaded with no talent vagabonds, including Masina's Melina- who is also his fiancée. She is a comedienne and impersonator, as well as meager dancer. Her act with Checcho may be the best in the troupe, but that's not saying much. We learn through the film, though, that he claims to have discovered and shepherded thirty-two young women to stardom through his auspices. Yet, this is clearly a fantasy, for even Melina seems too good for him. Thirty-two women may have passed through the troupe, but likely none of them made it big. In fact, not only is Melina the more reliable of the pair, but it is her bank account, not his, which bankrolls all of the players. Checcho is clearly a failure who refuses to acknowledge the manifest, and is easily gulled by the appearance of wannabe dancer Lilliana, who seems destined to become the thirty-third girl who will likely use and discard the idiotic and lust-filled Checcho. Of course, he inspires little sympathy for his being duped, since he's manifestly sponging off of Melina, as the whole troupe deals with his grandstanding, their own petty jealousies, theater owners who job them of their due, and creditors who cut them no slack.

This is the milieu that awaits Lilliana, the young dancer who seems to be a shy wallflower, at first, but is soon revealed as a schemer of the highest order. She has won a dance contest and a beauty pageant, and bewitches Checcho, who soon dumps Melina and the others to pursue her career aims and physical charms. Of course, he never has a shot with her, and she openly uses him for the tenuous connections he has to real bigwigs in show biz. She outstrips the others in Checcho's troupe because of her good looks- not talent, and great legs, revealed when her skirt is accidentally torn off during a dance routine. She acts as if she is humiliated, as cretinous male theatergoers hoot and holler for her to repeat her performance, but she also has made no bones about her legs and looks being her meal ticket, so one senses that the accident was not really so 'accidental.' She becomes the lure that Checcho hopes will be his line to fame and fortune.

But, he is not the only one who desires the comely newcomer. One night a rich man lets the troupe stay at his villa, with the gentleman's agreement that Lilliana will sleep with him. When Checcho realizes this he gets jealous and the troupe is tossed out. This is the moment that he definitively moves Lilliana ahead of Melina in his eyes, as he walks with Lilliana down a road, ignoring Melina, who soon fades away. Checcho and Lilliana strike out on their own and fail, and Lilliana turns on Checcho, who gathers together a new troupe of ragtag performers- mostly street performers- a black American jazz trumpet player, Johnny (John Kitzmiller) a female Brazilian guitarist (Vanja Orico), and a pistol marksman extraordinaire, Bill (Joe Faletta), after sponging yet again off of a guilted and guileless Melina. Yet, Lilliana soon dumps him, just as his show is to premiere- with her as the star, for one of Checcho's 'old friends' hires her as a backup dancer, with promises of stardom that will likely never come true, for Lilliana is understudy to an aging old shrew of a dancer who jealously guards her position.

Still, Lilliana leaves Checcho, who accepts her betrayal as easily as Melina accepted his- which suggests that such actions are not new to any of the parties involved. As the film ends Lilliana sees Checcho at a train station, back with Melina's troupe, and wishes him well, bragging of her 'successful' debut. Similarly, Checcho BS's of his show's triumphs, and both are destined to obscurity, with or without each other. Yet, Checcho seems to have finally reconciled himself with his lot as a failed artist, as well as Melina's forgiveness, until, when Melina goes for some coffee, Checcho finds himself entranced by an even younger and more beautiful blond girl than the brunet Lilliana. He flirts with her, asks if she's an actress, and one can see, as the film ends, that the whole experience with Lilliana will likely repeat itself, and that the thirty-two other women mentioned by Checcho were likely earlier incarnations of Lilliana, and the blond may be number thirty-four if she's not wise enough.

Yet, despite their poverty and idiocy, selfishness and ill manners, the characters in Variety Lights are lovable and utterly human. They are not the grotesques and caricatures that would become Fellini's stock in trade in later years. They merely have to clutch to a goose, shrug an eyebrow, or yawn lazily on a divan, and the sense is that these are real people, not mere fictive characters. Even the camera lingers on them in soft hues, suggesting the empathy of the filmmakers'. The insider knowledge the film displays is classic Fellini territory, and despite being an ensemble film it is really the stellar acting of Peppino De Filippo that raises this film above mere schmaltz, which it could have become rather easily. No, it's not as deep nor poignant as Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, released two tears later- a film with similar themes and backgrounds, but it is a worthwhile film, and one that stands up to repeated viewings.

The DVD, however, put out by The Criterion Collection, is one of its lesser efforts. The transfer, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is not good, and the amount of blemishes and scratches little above a VHS copy. There are no extras- not even the original trailer, quite a snubbing of the debut film of one of the Top Ten directors of all time. Notably missing in this film, despite some good musical numbers, is the perfect musical touch of Nino Rota, who would later take Fellini's already considerable skills even higher with his peerless scoring. Here, the music is merely serviceable, and often tends to lay the emotion on a bit heavily. Unfortunately, there is no English language dubbing, as in some later Fellini films, which always is a detriment to the visuals of the medium. Even worse is the fact that the subtitles are in Criterion's usual white, which often washes out against the glaring whites of the print.

However, despite the film transfer's flaws, and Criterion's subpar efforts at restoration and providing an interesting DVD package, the film is still worth seeing, if not buying. Fellini would improve greatly on this film, but this is a very good beginning. Take that first step with him.

© Dan Schneider August 2007
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