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It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Obsession : Movies: An aide to Rep. Norman Mineta carries on a lonely crusade to locate all of the 56 minutes lopped from Stanley Kramer's 1963 classic.

August 26, 1991|ROBERT M. ANDREWS | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

WASHINGTON — Eric K. Federing is mad, mad, mad, mad about his favorite movie.

He has spent much of his spare time over the past nine years, not to mention $5,500 of his own money, searching for 56 minutes of missing footage from the original 1963 version of one of the funniest movies ever made, Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Federing's personal crusade ("to call it an obsession is probably accurate," he says) has yielded snippets of "Mad World" outtakes totaling nearly 24 minutes.

A few good scenes, alas, are probably lost forever.

He's also learned something about Hollywood's own obsession with the bottom line, which probably means moviegoers will never see Kramer's comedy masterpiece fully restored and shown in all its wide-screen, six-speaker, 210-minute glory.

The movie, which premiered at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles on Nov. 7, 1963, was an Oscar-winning sensation.

Its star-studded cast of such comic heavyweights as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Terry-Thomas, Buddy Hackett and Jonathan Winters careened through the film in a madcap race to find a $350,000 treasure buried by Jimmy Durante.

After the original 70-millimeter print was shown in 14 cities, Kramer trimmed it here and there, but United Artists wanted more drastic cuts. A few months later, the studio had hacked the movie down to 154 minutes, short enough to permit multiple daily screenings.

Federing says the missing chunks of footage interrupted the movie's continuity, created plot holes and left some sight gags unexplained.

One of the unkindest cuts, he said, was an important, three-minute segment between Spencer Tracy and silent film comedian Buster Keaton. It revealed Tracy's abortive scheme as a deranged chief of detectives to flee to Mexico with the loot.

Federing found 2 1/2 minutes of missing intermission footage and exit music in France. His biggest triumph came in 1985 when he learned that film collector Joshua Berman had rescued 21 minutes of "Mad World" outtakes from a Los Angeles warehouse before it was bulldozed.

MGM-UA Home Video recently issued a 183-minute version of the movie incorporating most of the Berman footage. It still lacks the Tracy-Keaton exchange but restores a hilarious Winters monologue about using his money to buy his landlady a motorized wheelchair.

Federing scoffs at the studio's claim that the video is a "restoration" of the movie.

"You don't go to the National Gallery and crop a Winslow Homer painting, and you don't tear pages out of an Edna Ferber novel, or pull the brass sections out of a Fletcher Henderson jazz arrangement and start calling them originals," he said.

Kramer said in a telephone interview the new video isn't a restoration but is "pretty well what I wanted it to be."

Federing, 31, a press secretary to Rep. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose), said he fell in love with "Mad World" at age 12, when he saw it for the first time on the TV set in his New York City home.

It wasn't until 1982 that he saw the movie in a theater, at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and delighted in the audience's laughter.

His curiosity about the film began to grow. His interest in restoring the 1963 original gradually consumed him.

He founded the nonprofit "Mad World Campaign" out of his home and put 400 people on his newsletter's mailing list. He sponsored charity screenings of the movie, organized letter-writing campaigns to Hollywood executives and made a futile attempt through Mineta to have the House of Representatives adopt a resolution saluting the film's 25th anniversary.

Federing folded the campaign a few months ago, when he decided the battle was lost.

"I'd simply run out of ideas," he said.

He concluded the marketing of a new videotape version had doomed any chance Hollywood would restore the original "Mad World" for a theatrical comeback.

George Feltenstein, vice president of MGM-UA Home Video, confirmed Federing's suspicions. He said the technology doesn't exist to correct the faded colors of the 70mm original to produce a new theater print--a point Federing disputes.

Besides, Feltenstein said, a fully restored "Mad World" would lose tons of money at the box office because it would lack the "snob appeal" of a serious work, such as the restored "Lawrence of Arabia."

Federing hasn't given up hope.

He's pressing the Library of Congress to include "Mad World" among its next additions to the National Film Registry, which designates important movies worthy of preservation.

"There are still 16 minutes of missing action," he said. "It's out there somewhere, maybe in Italy or Australia. I wouldn't be surprised to find them there."

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