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Variety Lights is a 1950 film co-directed by Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada.

Checco is a performer in and manager of a third-rate traveling vaudeville group. They are living a hand-to-mouth existence; the gate receipts at one show are confiscated due to unpaid bills, and two members of the troupe have to hide in a train bathroom because Checco can't afford tickets for everybody. Checco however still has the undying loyalty of his lover, troupe member Melina Amour (Giuletta Masina, Fellini's wife).

In the audience at that show where the gate receipts are confiscated is a very good-looking young woman, Liliana (Carla Del Poggio, Lattuada's wife). Liliana wants to break into show business and manages to get Checco to hire her, much to the displeasure of the other troupe members. Soon, however, she's the star attraction. Middle-aged Checco falls in love with gorgeous young Liliana, much to Melina's sorrow. Eventually he leaves the rest of his troupe behind and becomes her business manager, even as Liliana bleeds him for money while also looking for a richer patron.

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Fellini's first film as a director, after he had spent a few years writing screenplays in the Italian movie industry. Sophia Loren made her film debut as an extra, and can be seen as one of the chorus girls dancing behind Liliana at the 29-minute mark.


Tropes:

  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Liliana, who acts like the innocent ingenue but is clearly manipulating Checco as a stepping stone in her road to fame.
  • Blowing a Raspberry: A mean heckler blows raspberries at poor Melina as she does her act. However he is won over and by the end is applauding with everyone else.
  • The Can Can Song: Liliana is dancing to this near the end as Checco's performers rehearse for their new show. She never dances to it onstage, as she ditches him.
  • Chorus Girls: Many. One of them's Sophia Loren! Indeed Checco's advertising posters promise girls in bikinis, and parts of his show teeter on the edge of burlesque. The movie ends with Liliana becoming a chorus girl in a considerably more successful troupe, although she's again trying to scheme her way to stardom.
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  • Establishing Character Moment: As the troupe waits at the train station, flat broke after their gate receipts were confiscated, Melina checks Checco's temperature and gives him an aspirin. This establishes her nurturing nature.
  • Here We Go Again!:
    • Liliana uses Checco, bleeds him for money, and then dumps him when she snags a more big-time producer. A chastened Checco goes back to his old lover Melina and they start a new show. Only the film ends with Checco once again hitting on a hot younger woman on the train, having seemingly learned nothing and being doomed to make the same mistakes.
    • In Liliana's last scene, she's back to just being a showgirl, albeit with a much, much higher-profile show, and she's again trying to upstage the headline singer.
  • Italians Talk with Hands: They really do, like when everyone starts arguing and waving hands at each other after Checco pulls the plug on the phonograph at the party (he's jealous of Liliana dancing with the Duke)
  • Lingerie Scene: Liliana is sleeping on a bed—on top of her sheets—wearing nothing but a slip and stockings, when the Duke tries to sneak in. Checco stops him, which gets the whole troupe kicked out of the mansion.
  • Lovely Assistant: Edison Will, the terrible Stage Magician in Checco's show, employs a half-naked chorus girl as his lovely assistant.
  • Love Triangle: Checco, Liliana the gorgeous schemer, and Checco's affectionate, nurturing old lover Melina.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Ends with the train zooming away as Checco's troupe goes off to a new show, and Checco hits on another young ingenue.
  • The Prima Donna: Mixed with White-Dwarf Starlet, as the singer in Checco's troupe demands that, even if nobody else is getting paid, he must get paid, because he's "a national star".
  • Right-Hand Cat: Towards the end, as she's becoming more overtly villainous, Liliana starts carrying a Siamese cat around. She has one with her when she bids Checco a final goodbye on the train.
  • Sexy Backless Outfit:
    • Melina, possibly trying to attract Checco's attention back to herself, wears a backless dress to the party at the Duke's mansion.
    • In some of Liliana's stage numbers, she wears nothing above her waist except for flower pasties over her breasts.
  • She's Got Legs: As Liliana is putting on the full-court press to get Checco to hire her, she raises her skirt to show off her shapely legs in stockings. Later there's a closeup of her legs as she dances.
  • Street Musician: At a low point, when he's been locked out of his room for non-payment and is homeless, Checco meets an American trumpet player named Johnny. Johnny is a homeless street musician who says that he likes it that way, that the freedom of being The Tramp appeals to him. Checco casts Johnny in his new production.
  • Title Drop: For the Grand Finale of their cheesy variety show, Checco's troupe sings a song called "Variety Lights" all about the bright lights of the stage.
  • Vaudeville: Checco runs a decidedly low-rent vaudeville troupe, the sort that plays theaters in the sticks where the ceilings leak when it rains.
  • Wardrobe Malfunction: Liliana first makes an impression when, as she's dancing during a number, her skirt gets torn and falls off, leaving her in blouse and bikini bottom. It's ambiguous as to whether she did it on purpose (she complained about the skirt not fitting, but she's also hungry for fame).
  • Would Hit a Girl: Checco flies into a jealous rage and slaps Liliana. All she does is laugh at him and say "If you need to hit me to blow off steam, go ahead then!" Then she makes fun of him for wearing a beret with a suit.
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