September 30, 1955 (1977)

18 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The title “September 30, 1955” refers to the date of James Dean’s death. The actor was only 24 years old and his best movies (“Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant”) hadn’t been released yet. But “East of Eden” took movie audiences by surprise—or rather, it was James Dean’s performance that took them by surprise. As “September 30, 1955” opens, we meet our main character—a young man named Jimmy J—as he watches “East of Eden” in a cinema. As he watches James Dean perform the touching final scene, a tear falls across his face.

Whether this is the first or one of multiple times he has seen this movie isn’t clear, but one thing is certain—Jimmy J feels that James Dean is a close friend. That is why when he hears that James Dean died in a tragic accident the very next day, it really hits him hard. His mother and friends don’t understand his grief. Jimmy J has to remind them that they really don’t. The worst anybody could say was that James Dean was only a movie star. He was more than that. That’s what anybody might have said on the actual date that people heard about the death of James Dean. There may be a lot of other people who feel the same way as Jimmy J, but this is a sleepy Arkansas town where an event like this isn’t very important. Quite odd—this could have been the most-talked-about event to come along in a long while. But with the upcoming homecoming (excuse that pun) at college, what’s more important?

“September 30, 1955” does a nice job when it focuses on Jimmy J’s grief and interaction with his friends. Jimmy J is played by Richard Thomas (best known as John Boy on “The Waltons”) and while the character isn’t given much of a personality throughout the film, he nearly makes up for it in a bedside scene with a great amount of range. Strangely enough, the final half of this film is the best thing of the movie. The characters—including those played by Tom Hulce, Deborah Benson, and Lisa Blount—are given room to grow after a couple of painfully long sequences—one involving an attempted séance (the only saving grace is Lisa Blount’s Vampira exterior) and the following one involving an attempt to scare a couple of ex-friends with makeup. I felt if those scenes were trimmed down a bit, I’d be a bit more satisfied. I wouldn’t ask to delete the latter scene because it sets up the bedside scene (not giving anything away here).

So do I recommend the film? Well…it’s a close call, but I do. The director James Bridges has a good feel for the town that Jimmy J and his friends live in, the actors are good (especially Lisa Blount as Jimmy J’s ex-girlfriend who believes she can communicate with spirits), and the writing of the dialogue that these kids say is spot-on. There are flaws, of course—this is not particularly well-executed. As I’ve said, some sequences drag on for too long, some hints of comedy fall flat, and the final shot is unsatisfactory. But as a drama and a portrait of those grieving over the legendary actor James Dean, “September 30, 1955” works.

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