D. W. Griffith
Both a filmmaking pioneer and a social provocateur, director D. W. Griffith almost singlehandedly developed the techniques by which films would be made while simultaneously showing how they could be both a significant commercial and cultural element of American culture for good or ill. Once called "the father of film" by actress Lillian Gish and "the teacher of us all" by Charlie Chaplin, Griffith took a nascent medium wallowing in mediocrity and used his insatiable desire to experiment to break the conventions of his era and develop new means of relating narratives for the screen. After making almost three movies a week from 1908-1913, where he innovated with new techniques like close-ups, cross-cutting and deep focus, Griffith made the feature length Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), a technical triumph and box office hit undermined by its overtly racist themes of the times. He responded to public outrage in the form of protests and riots with "Intolerance" (1916), an expensive masterpiece that sought to answer his critics that failed at the box office and left him in dire financial straits for the remainder of his career. Though he formed the studio United Artists with Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1919, Griffith dropped out five years later over his failure to make a hit film that would resolve his debts. Though he continued making movies for UA and Paramount Pictures, nothing he made reached the heights of "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." In the end, Griffith's legacy as a groundbreaking pioneer who gave birth to modern filmmaking was mired by his obvious sentiment to racial stereotypes, which haunted him for decades after his death.