Books: Shelf Life: Cary Grant, A Class Apart by Graham McCann, 4th Estate pounds 16.99.

Dennis Lim
Saturday 14 September 1996 23:02 BST

Pauline Kael wrote of Cary Grant: "We smile when we see him, we laugh before he does anything; it makes us happy just to look at him." It has been 10 years since Grant died and 30 years since his last film, yet his appeal is undimmed. He represents simpler, happier times; he remains Hollywood's embodiment of youth and elegance - partly because he retired with dignity before the onset of old age, partly because he could never really be anything else. Grant's warm and easy rapport with audiences outlives him, as this scrupulous, respectful biography reminds us.

The thrust of this book is that Cary Grant was an invention. As he himself once said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." Grant was created by Archie Leach, a working-class lad from Bristol. But even if McCann refers to the former as a "self-made man" and the latter as a "man-made self", it was less a transformation than a gradual assimilation of qualities that the young Englishman thought desirable in 1930s Hollywood. His mother was institutionalised when he was nine; as a teenager, he joined an acrobatic troupe, which took him to America; he worked on Broadway, but only came into his own on screen. As the silent era faded, Grant - with verbal dexterity to match his irresistible physicality - was a prized commodity.

Howard Hawks and Leo McCarey coaxed perfectly timed comedy from him in Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth, but no director used him more shrewdly than Alfred Hitchcock, who in the four films they made together exploited his capacity for ambiguity: beneath the surface charm, his characters were never completely knowable.

Grant also appeared to be concealing secrets in real life. About his alleged involvement with British intelligence, McCann stresses the absence of proof (the files remain classified). McCann is more convinced than some of Grant's other biographers of his heterosexuality; the persistent whispers about his sexual proclivities are put down as homophobic gossip. The author has no dirt to dish; if anything, he is affectionate towards and a little in awe of his subject: it would be unfair to fault him on either count.

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