September 30, 1955 (PG) -- Saturday at noon and midnight only at the American Film Institute Theater, the second program in a series called "Films That Got Away."

As a cross between "Grease and Elvis Presley's funeral, we have "September 30, 1955." That, if your American history is fuzzy, was the day actor James Dean was killed in an automobile crash at the age of 24.

If it's ludicrous to presume that everyone knows that date along with 1492, the cult of the dead star does have a legitimate place in American popular culture. If living stars have their admirers, dead ones, provided they did not die of old age, have their worshipers. This tribute, which opens with Dean's name on a movie marquee, suggests its sequel when, at the end, his name and film have been replaced by Marilyn Monroe's.

Two explanations of this phenomenon flit quickly through "September 30, 1955," a film made in 1976 but never released in this area before. Either explanation might have made an interesting movie if developed.

The first is the function of the hero in people's lives and the modern paucity of Americans who fill this need, and the second is the contribution of art to people's lives. It doesn't have to be high art to give insights -- the story of a movie's having done this for a small-town boy would have been interesting. This boy keeps drawing parallels between Dean and himself, and asserting that "he changed my life," but in the end, it means only that he buys a motorcycle and a red jacket after seeing "Rebel Without a Cause."

The theme that this film chose to do instead was a cute look at the styles -- in clothing, mores and morals -- of the '50s. We've been seeing these pretty steadily in the movies lately, and there's just not much funny anymore in prom queens and football heroes.

In this milieu, James Dean takes on the properties of a religious leader but more nearly resembles a small child's imaginary friend who okays his "experiencing everything," even when it runs to such banal naughtiness as stealing liquor or hitting a younger brother for making smart remarks.

Some accusations are thrown at Jimmy J. that drive him crazy. When his girlfriend suggests that Dean "was only a movie star -- it isn't as though you knew him or anything," he throws a drink in her face. In an attempt to mollify him, she says she understands he's "just going through a phase."

With all her irritating establishment smugness, she was right both times. But while it is a legitimate phase in American teenage-hood it is not, as presented here, a very fascinating one.