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With: Giulietta Masina, Peppino De Filippo, Carla Del Poggio, John Kitzmiller, Dante Maggio, Checco Durante, Gina Mascetti, Giulio Calì, Silvio Bagolini, Giacomo Furia, Mario De Angelis
Written by: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli
Directed by: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Italian with English subtitles
Running Time: 93
Date: 12/06/1950
IMDB

Variety Lights (1950)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dance Hall Days

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A low-rent variety show performs onstage; cheap jokes, cheap songs, and cheap dance. The camera searches the faces in the audience. Most of them are working class, ordinary faces; people who came to be entertained and nothing more. But the camera keeps coming back to one radiant face. This is a face that does not belong in an audience, the shot tells us. This is a face that belongs on stage.

That's the brilliant beginning of Federico Fellini's directorial debut, Variety Lights (1950), co-directed by Alberto Lattuada. We know that Lattuada (Without Pity, Anna, Love in the City), who was already established by 1950 and has since been forgotten, can be credited with giving Fellini his start. But it's maddening to "auteur" theorists to try and sort out who directed what in this film. Fellini has gone on record saying that they were both responsible for everything. Certainly Variety Lights looks like a Fellini film, with its garish treatment of theater people and its odd dutch angles; but it also represents Lattuada equally well. (Lattuada, like Fellini, dabbled in Italian neorealism, but was eventually drawn to more lavish productions.)

Both directors' wives appear in the film; Fellini's wife Giulietta Masina (who went on to fame in both 1954's La Strada and 1957's Nights of Cabiria) and Lattuada's wife Carla Del Poggio. Del Poggio is actually the star, and the woman who is first seen in the audience rapturously gazing at the stage. She quickly becomes like Anne Baxter's Eve character from All About Eve (released the same year) and does anything she can to get ahead.

To start, she cleverly worms her way into Masina's and her lover Peppino De Filippo's measly theater troupe. Travels from town to town, they're never sure of earning cheers or jeers for their hard work, much less a steady paycheck. Soon Del Poggio seduces De Filippo and convinces him to break away and form his own troupe, which he funds with Masina's own savings.

Though it's a Fatal Attraction-type story, Fellini and Lattuada keep the proceedings light. The movie is really more about hope and dreams than it is about infidelity. Each character wishes, above all, for that shining moment in the spotlight and their 15 minutes of fame. Eventually, Del Poggio gets her comeuppance. She gets a job in a big-budget musical show, but has to play second fiddle to a nasty diva.

Besides that opening, the movie contains many other unforgettable images, including the troupe trudging through the woods and along country backroads to get to a businessman's villa for a party--for which they themselves will have to cook. De Filippo's late-night rounding up of new talent for his new troupe is lovely as well. No matter what the scene is, the movie always has a rich texture and true feeling of space and place.

It helps to see Variety Lights on the new Criterion Collection DVD, which sports a lovely transfer that literally glows. The disc is short on extras (the only feature is the ability to turn the English subtitles on and off), but it's such a wonderful film that extras just don't matter. In fact, I think I prefer it to some of Fellini's later, more garish work. It ranks with the more simple pleasures of Nights of Cabiria and La Strada--in short, some of Fellini's best work.

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