Fellini’s first film as director, in collaboration with the veteran Alberto Lattuada, was this witty comedy about a small time traveling theater troupe.
When we consider the career of Federico Fellini, we immediately think of his most famous and important films, such as La Strada, La Dolce Vita, or 8 ½. And rightly so. But I like to explore a genius’s earlier works to get a fresh idea of the sources of inspiration, and I often discover some gems along the way. In this instance, I offer you Fellini’s very first effort as director in 1950, called Variety Lights.
Liliana, a beautiful small town girl played by Carla Del Poggio, is enraptured when she attends the performance of a seedy traveling variety show. She runs off to join the troupe, and because of her good looks, manages to become the main attraction. The show’s lead actor, a much older man played by Peppino De Filippo, falls for her, abandoning his girlfriend (played by Giuletta Masina) and attempting to become an impresario with Lily as his star—but she has other plans.
Fellini had been writing screenplays for a decade when he took his first stab at directing, in collaboration with the veteran neorealist director Alberto Lattuada. The partnership was apparently a happy one. Variety Lights is funny, tender, observant, and briskly paced—an affectionate and entertaining look at life in the lower regions of show business that prefigures many of Fellini’s later themes. The film’s convivial flavor may also have been aided by the fact that Del Poggio was married to Lattuada, and Masina to Fellini.
The story cleverly upends the conventional rags-to-riches scenario. We think the film is going to be about the gorgeous Lily, whom we never learn much about, except that she’s warm-hearted and has a lot of spunk. But the narrative ends up focusing on De Filippo’s endearingly pathetic schemer Checco, who pretends to be an actor of distinction with many connections, but is hopelessly outclassed by the various male figures who swoop down to try to take Lily from him. Despite his sometimes shabby behavior, he has nobility of spirit compared to the bigger-budget showbiz types who are his rivals. Too needy to let go of Lily, and too principled to take advantage of her, his plight is rueful enough to be touching, but not enough to prevent our laughter.
The film has a marvelous feel for the world of smoke-filled dance halls and burlesque theaters, its backstage antagonisms, the constant problems with money, and the faintly ludicrous pride of marginally talented performers. Variety Lights is suffused with love for that world, and the people in it. Not every joke hits its mark, but it’s a lot of fun, and an auspicious start for one of the world’s best directors.