An actor in a small-time variety troupe attempts to gain the success that he has long envisioned as his due—on the stage and in his love life.
Writer(s): Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano
Director: Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada
Production Co.(s): Capitolium
Story by: Federico Fellini
The Story on the Screen
In Variety Lights (Italian title: Luci del varietà), the main character, Checco Dal Monte, is an aging actor/comedian in a small-time traveling variety troupe whose ranks include musicians, dancers, and his long-time girlfriend and performing partner, Melina Amour. The troupe functions and behaves like a dysfunctional artistic family each member of which is dedicated to a life in the theatre... as well as his or her own ego. Unfortunately, the talents of the troupe do not match the dreams of its members, and it appears to be in constant financial distress.
Checco Dal Monte, the main character, is an aging actor whose small-time variety troupe behaves like a dysfunctional family.
When we first meet the variety troupe, it is performing at a tiny theatre in a small Italian town. And although the acts are not first-rate, the audience seems appreciative—especially Liliana Antonelli, a beautiful young woman who is greatly enamored with the show and imagines herself to be destined for a life in the theatre. When the show is over, Liliana slips backstage to introduce herself to the troupe, in the hopes of being invited to join their ranks, but her attempt is waylaid by money squabbles—owing to the confiscation of their box-office receipts by the hotel owner to whom they owe a great deal of money.
That night, as the troupe slumbers on the train traveling to the next stop on its tour, Liliana introduces herself boldly to Checco and expresses her desire to join the company—an offer that he attempts to parlay into a quick-and-secret sexual opportunity, which she rebuffs summarily. Her dreams of success in theatre are as firmly held (though more naïvely) as his and, like him, she believes herself to possess the talent to deserve them on their merits alone. Unfortunately, the rebuff loses her the opportunity to become part of the troupe on her first attempt to do so.
When a girl named Liliana attempts to join the troupe, she is rebuffed—at least at first.
The next day, however, circumstances brought about by the poverty of the group provide her with the opportunity to come to its rescue and endear herself, at least temporarily, to its members. And ensuing complications with the "commendatore" who has booked the group allow her to join its chorus of dancing girls that very night—a serendipitous turn of events that not only saves the evening but turns the show into a temporary success, due in large part to her physical beauty and shapely legs.
As the audiences get bigger, Checco finds himself more attracted to Liliana, not only for her beauty but for the chance for personal success in life and love that her very existence represents—a possibility for which he proves willing to sacrifice his honor and loyalties, even to Melina, whose dream is to quit the business one day and open a market together with their shared savings.
After a few small and unsuccessful attempts to promote Liliana to potential producers, Checco concocts the idea of writing and producing a show of his own using actors outside the troupe and with Liliana as the star—a venture for which he finagles funds from the long-suffering Melina, whose love and sympathy for him compels her to come to his aid even in the face of his betrayal. Unfortunately for him, other more-successful producers also have developed a fondness for Liliana.
After unsuccessful attempts to promote Liliana, Checco concocts the idea of writing and producing a show of his own with Liliana as the star.
Behind the Scenery
Checco's lot in life at the start of the story is not one that he is interested in keeping in the face of a threat to its possession. It is, instead, one of poverty and frustration brought about by the idea that he is a great actor whose position as such the world does not recognize. Likewise, we-the-audience are not led to believe that he was, in the past, a successful actor who has fallen on hard times along with his cohorts—which would make his journey one prompted by a regain intent.
In Variety Lights, the main character is a gain character, and his treasure is the professional and romantic success that he has long felt he deserved.
In Variety Lights, the main character, Checco, is a gain character, and the treasure that he intends to gain is the professional and romantic success that he has long desired and felt he deserved. And the inciting incident that prompts his attempt takes the form of the appearance of Liliana, whose own longing for stardom compels her to attempt to join the troupe.
The intent to succeed professionally or romantically does not contain, in and of itself, intrinsic merit for support or condemnation; therefore, to identify the issue of Variety Lights, it is necessary to examine the why and how of the attempt on the part of the main character. In this case, the why stems from a selfish desire to satisfy his own ego, and the how involves the willingness to sacrifice his friendships to succeed.
The issue, then, may be couched in terms of "attempting to gain personal success at the expense of others who have supported you." And the storytellers appear to consider doing so as the basis of an inadvisable endeavor; therefore, the proposition for this story can be stated as:
- One should not attempt to gain personal success at the expense of those who have supported him, because success in the attempt will render the personal success hollow and unworthy of honest admiration and will cause harm to those whose support he was willing to sacrifice in the attempt.
Checco does not succeed in his attempt to gain personal and romantic success and glory with Liliana. While rehearsing for the show that he has written as a star vehicle for her, she is wooed and won over by a more-powerful producer, who casts her in a show of his own that will take her to Milan and even Paris. And Checco is left with a failed venture that forces him to return to where he started—having rejoined his old variety troupe and reunited with Melina.
Checco does not succeed in his attempt to gain his treasure.
And although we-the-audience can understand Checco's longing for personal success and glory, the methods that he uses to attempt to gain it are not those that we support; therefore, we are pleased (or at least not disappointed) by his failure. Consequently, Variety Lights checks in as a fail/pleased story. But because he ends up in the dismal circumstances in which he started, and appears to have not learned his lesson along the way, the ending cannot be classified as happy.