A minor work by writer-director James Bridges—whose more impressive credits include The Paper Chase (1973) and The China Syndrome (1979)—September 30, 1955 revolves around a bold premise that sounds more interesting in conception than it is in execution. The titular date is when movie star James Dean died in a car wreck, so Bridges focuses on the reactions of several Dean fans in small-town Arkansas. The idea, so promising in the abstract, was to convey why Dean’s incarnation of angst-ridden teen rebellion spoke so deeply to a generation of postwar adolescents. Unfortunately, Bridges stretches this already-thin material way past its breaking point, and he features characters whose behavior is so extreme (and inexplicable) that he leaves recognizable reality far behind. Perhaps Bridges would have been better served tackling this topic with a short film.
In any event, the central character of September 30, 1955 is Jimmy (Richard Thomas), a high-strung youth afraid of the life that awaits him after he graduates high school in a few weeks. Having fallen under Dean’s thrall after seeing East of Eden (1955) four times, Jimmy is more than eager to demonstrate that he, too, can be a rebel. Hearing about Dean’s death gives Jimmy license to release his id, so the picture depicts the misguided mischief Jimmy creates along with friends including Charlotte (Deborah Benson), Frank (Dennis Quaid), Hanley (Tom Hulce), and especially Billie Jean (Lisa Blount), who’s an even bigger Dean freak than Jimmy. The youths steal booze from a store, run away from cops, hold a séance, terrorize classmates at a lover’s-lane spot, and eventually trigger a near-tragic accident. While it’s easy to believe that Jimmy’s friends are bored kids looking for laughs, accepting Jimmy’s characterization is nearly impossible—whether he’s stripping down to undies and slathering himself in mud or claiming he’s receiving signals from Dean’s spirit, Jimmy comes across as a lunatic. He’s also a boring lunatic, especially in the film’s interminable climactic scene, which features Jimmy giving the dullest monologue imaginable in an utterly absurd circumstance.
Thomas, who enjoyed a big ’70s TV career on The Waltons, wears out his welcome here, reaching for but not seizing the kind of intensity that seemed to come effortlessly for better Dean-esque actors (e.g., Martin Sheen, etc.). Thomas’ castmates fare better, but they can’t fully surmount the iffy material, and an atrocious score by Leonard Rosenman only makes things worse. Only the great cinematographer Gordon Willis contributes something unassailably special to September 30, 1955, with moody imagery dominated by shadows and silhouettes, although whether his dark style is actually “right” for this story is anybody’s guess.
September 30, 1955: FUNKY