On this day in 1915, audiences file into the Loring Opera House at 3745 7th Street in Riverside, California, for a special sneak preview of D.W. Griffith’s first full-length feature film, The Clansman. Later renamed The Birth of a Nation, the controversial Civil War epic would become Hollywood’s first blockbuster hit.
After making more than 450 short films for the Biograph movie studio, Griffith left and began secretly working on his own private project, which would become The Clansman.
Based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Dixon, Griffith’s career-making film depicted the white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan as a welcome force of order that arose amid the chaos of the post-Civil War era in the South. The later title change reflected Griffith’s view that it was the Civil War–and specifically the victory of the Union over the Confederacy–that bound the collection of disparate American states into a true nation under one central authority.
From the moment of its release, The Birth of a Nation drew harsh criticism for honoring the Klan’s historic role as a force of opposition to the Reconstruction-era idea that blacks could be successfully integrated into white society. Many historians disputed Griffith’s view of history as a distortion that glamorized the violent actions of the Klan and demonized African Americans, completely discounting their valuable contributions during and after the Civil War and degrading the important efforts made during Reconstruction to grant former slaves civil rights and a role in government. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) published a pamphlet denouncing the film, referring to it as “three miles of filth.”
The final cut of The Birth of a Nation ran nearly three hours and showcased cutting-edge filmmaking techniques for the time, including multiple camera angles. Despite the controversy (which included attempts to ban the film entirely), The Birth of a Nation would become the first true Hollywood blockbuster, earning more than $10 million (the equivalent of $200 million today) as audiences lined up to pay the unprecedented rate of $2 per ticket.
In 1918, after an extensive renovation, the Loring Opera House was renamed the Loring Theatre. Taken over by new ownership in 1938, it became the Golden State Theatre; the following year the theater hosted the first preview showing of another famous Civil War-themed movie, Gone With the Wind. A fire destroyed the Golden State Theatre in 1990, and the site was razed in 2003.