In 1934, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) released the film "Manhattan Melodrama." Made in the pre-code era, the film follows the story of two young boys - Blackie Gallagher (Played by Clark Gable as an adult and Mickey Rooney as a child) and Jim Wade (played by William Powell) - who are orphaned by the sinking of the General Slocum in 1904.
Their paths diverge over the years. Blackie becomes a gambler and a crook who runs an illegal casino. Jim becomes a lawyer. They both fall in love with the same woman (played by Myrna Loy) and struggle to maintain their friendship as Blackie slides deeper into the crime world and Jim runs for attorney general and then governor of New York. In the end, honor wins out, even though not everyone survives the movie. You can rent the film on Amazon Prime, or read the full plot synopsis on Wikipedia.
Watch the original film trailer below:
Today, we're sharing the opening scene of the film - a dramatization of the sinking of the General Slocum, one of the worst maritime disasters in American history. Warning to sensitive viewers that this clip contains depictions of crowd panic, fire, and drownings.
"Manhattan Melodrama" gained notoriety in the press not only for its fine acting, but also because famous gangster and bank robber John Dillinger attended the Chicago premiere and as he was leaving the theater was approached by federal agents, ran, and was shot and killed.
The General Slocum disaster was one of the worst in American maritime history. Filled mostly with German-Americans from the Lower East Side of Manhattan on a church outing, the ship caught fire and its poor safety standards - rotted fire hoses, wired on lifeboats, untrained crew, etc. - combined with the fact that most of the passengers could not swim and the swift currents near Hell Gate in New York Harbor (where the fire had broken out) meant that the vast majority of the passengers were drowned or killed by the fire. Of particular horror were the fact that the crumbling cork lifejackets had been filled with iron bars to bring them up to standard weight. Children hastily bundled into lifejackets and tossed overboard by parents drowned instantly. Bodies washed up on shore for days afterward.
The General Slocum disaster clearly left an imprint on American and New York minds, judging by its feature in "Manhattan Melodrama" and other films and books, including James Joyce's Ulysses. The disaster had the highest civilian deaths in American history (over 1,200) until September 11, 2001.
If you'd like to learn more about the General Slocum disaster, join us this Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 7:00 PM EST for a virtual lecture by Edward T. O'Donnell, author of the book Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum.
You can also learn more from the New York Public Library's article, "The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904."
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This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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