The name of Brabin has been associated with butchers’ shops in Liverpool and Bootle since the middle of the 19th century. At the start of the 1880’s Charles Brabin had shops at 368 Scotland Road, 294 Great Homer Street and 258 Walton Road. On 4th April 1882 he and his wife Margaret welcomed an addition to the family in the form of son Charles Joseph. He would leave the city at the start of the 20th century to seeks his fortune in the USA, become a noted film director of the silent era and marry one of early Hollywood’s biggest stars.
The family home at the time of Charles Joseph’s birth was the premises at 258 Walton Road L4. He attended St Francis Xavier’s College and Mayfield College, a Roman Catholic boarding school for boys in Sussex. The family later moved to 66 Shaw Street L6 (now demolished). In late 1901 he sailed from Liverpool, arriving at Boston on 23rd November. No precise details survive of the circumstances of his emigration but one source (Garnier – see below) records that “family lore indicates that he was shipped off to America early by his father, possibly to avoid a sexual scandal”.
Brabin settled in Manhattan, working first as a hotel clerk then as a salesman, before taking up acting in 1906. He gained experience working on Broadway with some of the leading directors, David Belasco for one, and made his first film appearance in 1908. MGM at one time issued publicity material on him drawing attention to his similarity in appearance to Abraham Lincoln (he stood 6 feet 3 inches tall) and in 1911 he played Lincoln in His First Commission. His first chance to direct came in 1910 and was his chief cinematic role thereafter. He returned to England in 1913 to make a series of films for the Edison Company, filming in Wales and Devon. Brabin continued to direct movies throughout the silent era, mixing comedies and dramas in equal proportion. In 1919 he directed two films featuring Fox’s leading star, Theda Barr (Kathleen Mavourneen, La Belle Russe). Born Theodosia Burr Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor immigrant from Poland (some theatres showing ‘Kathleen Mavourneen’ were physically attacked by Irish organisation protesting that their Irish heroine should be played by a Jewess). She was nicknamed ‘The Vamp’ reflecting her vampire-like sexual allure. In 1920 Brabin divorced his first wife, Susan Mosher, and in 1921 he and Barr were married, remaining together until her death in 1955. After their marriage Barr only made two further films before retiring. (Her last screen appearance was in a two-reeler part-directed by Stan Laurel and featuring as an actor Oliver hardy, made just before the two made their first appearance as a duo.)
In 1923, to the general surprise of the film industry, Brabin was chosen to direct Goldwyn’s epic Ben Hur and he departed to Italy in 1924 to begin filming. The film proved something of a disaster for him and, coming at a time when Goldwyn merged to form M-G-M, the poor rushes and escalating costs meant that he was sacked alongside others at the helm. Brabin sued M-G-M for half a million dollars for breach of contract, although two years later he agreed to drop the action and accept a contract to work for the company. A family anecdote (c.f. Garnier) records that on his way over to Italy he stopped over in Liverpool to throw a big party for his family but left in a hurry leaving a large unpaid bill. This may be why when he visited England in the 1940’s Liverpool was not on his itinerary.
He made a few ‘talkies’ in the early 1930’s but retired from the film business in 1935. His name is now largely forgotten, in part because much of his early work has not survived, and few if any silent films get an airing. Nonetheless, he was a much respected professional whose output was considerable and for the most part consistent. Critics seem to think that his best was The Beast of the City  which starred Jean Harlow and Walter Huston, and possibly his worst The Mask of Fu Manchu  with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy which manages to combine hack dialogue with much racial offensiveness.
After Theda Barr’s death in 1955 Brabin moved to Santa Monica where he died in November 1957 aged 75.
Once the Brabin's butcher shop and the family home when Charles Joseph was born in 1882.
A poster for one of Brabin's most notable films starring major Hollywood performers
Charles Brabin's application for US Citizenship.
There are the usual Wikipedia and IMDB entries. By the most detailed source is an 82 page paper by Phillipe Garnier. This was at one time available on the internet but seems to have disappeared. If anyone would like a copy please email and I'll be happy to forward a word doc or PDF.
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