September 30, 1955

Following the success of the film The Paper Chase in 1973, writer and director James Bridges, who was born in Paris (Logan County), turned his attention to a more personal project. Bridges wrote a script based on his college experiences in Arkansas and convinced the studio to allow him to shoot the movie in his home state.

September 30, 1955 is about a college student, played by Richard Thomas, who is devastated by the death of his idol, actor James Dean. At the time of Dean’s death, Bridges was a student at Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), in Conway (Faulkner County). According to his college friend Tom Bonner, a former weatherman at KARK-TV in Little Rock (Pulaski County), many of the incidents portrayed in the movie are simulated versions of what happened in real life.

The film was originally titled 9/30/55, the date that Dean died, but the studio’s marketing department found the title confusing so it was changed to September 30, 1955, which is how it is known today. The story takes place the day after Dean’s death. Shocked by the news that his screen idol was killed in an automobile accident, college student Jimmy J. leads his friends on a series of escapades that include robbing a liquor store, holding a séance, and frightening classmates who are making out at a cemetery, an incident that quickly turns from farce to tragedy.

Bridges shot the film in 1976 at the UCA campus and other locations around Conway, including a scene along the Arkansas River at Toad Suck. Many Arkansans had roles in the film, including Bonner, who played a radio announcer, and UCA’s longtime choir director Glen Irby, who portrayed a band leader.

Bridges cast Arkansans as the three female leads, giving each of them their first screen roles. Lisa Blount, born in Fayetteville (Washington County), would go on to appear in numerous television and film roles and later produce movies with her husband, Ray McKinnon, including the Oscar-winning short The Accountant. Deborah Benson, who had recently graduated from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro (Craighead County), returned from New York City, where she was pursuing a dance career, to appear in the movie. She would later be cast in several movies, including North Dallas Forty and Steven Spielberg’s 1941, as well as television series such as Dallas and Knot’s Landing. Bridges also cast Mary Kai Clark, the teenage daughter of one of his friends from college. Clark would have a successful career as a musical performer.

The film also features early performances by Dennis Quaid and Tom Hulce. Director of photography was the legendary Gordon Willis, whose works include The Godfather, All the President’s Men, and Annie Hall. The film was released in 1977 and received mixed reviews, but Bridges’s biographer Peter Tonguette calls it a masterpiece, describing it as “among the very greatest of American films of the 1970s.”

For additional information:
Canby, Vincent. “‘September 30, 1955,’ When James Dean Died: Admirer of Actor.” New York Times, March 31, 1978. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9907E2D61731E632A25752C3A9659C946990D6CF (accessed December 6, 2017).

September 30, 1955.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078231/ (accessed December 6, 2017).

Thomas, Bob. “Arkansan Recalls Dean’s Death in ‘9-30-55.’” Arkansas Gazette, September 30, 1977, p. 12B.

Tonguette, Peter Prescott. The Films of James Bridges. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

Ben Fry
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

Last Updated: 12/06/2017

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