FROM the 1930s through the 1960s, American boys who went to the movies were given the basic choice of growing up tough, like John Wayne, or suave, like the late Cary Grant. Did you want to make the perfect exit through the swinging doors of all the Long Branch saloons of life, throwing a devastating right cross to a cattle rustler's jaw on the way out?
Or did you want to move, as gracefully as Fred Astaire, across the parquet drawing-room floor and depart, right on the beat, just as you dropped a bon mot smack on the head of the resident cad? (How the butler, handing you your hat, would silently applaud!)
In short, did you wish to raise a ruckus or raise an eyebrow? Did you wish to shoot a six-gun or shoot your French cuffs? Did you wish to live by the inner music of ``Home on the Range'' or Cole Porter? In any Saturday matinee poll, John Wayne would have won, calloused hands down - until a young movie-model-seeker reached the age of 14 or 15 and admitted, as the saying went, to being ``interested'' in girls.
Whatever men and horses thought of John Wayne, the man's man, the horse's man, women saw something else in Cary Grant, and that was good enough for a 15-year-old.
John Wayne never rode a horse until he became a Western hero. Cary Grant, born Archie Leach, was a poor boy who could barely spell ``posh.'' That's acting for you - or maybe Hollywood.
Like a dancing-master, Grant became the middle man for the real thing. He sold class, as in ``classy.'' The ex-acrobat from Bristol, England, was, in the vocabulary of press agents, sophisticated and debonaire. His clipped accent passed as authentic as surely as John Wayne's drawl - Californian out of Iowa, with a coating of Texas dust.
If Wayne's impersonation went back to the frontier, Grant's went back even further - to the Mother Country.
Inside every bumbling American, a stock-company Englishman is struggling to get out. For three decades, this Anglo's name was Cary Grant.
At times, Grant seemed little more than the sum total of his mannerisms: a formidable dimple in the chin; a rather marvelous posture that appeared to depend on a stiff neck; and two looks - one incredulous, one imperiously exasperated.
These mannerisms made him the most mimicked actor of his time. Yet as his equally elegant co-stars - Irene Dunne, Grace Kelly, the Hepburns (Katharine and Audrey) - testified, he had the timing of a master comedian.
Grant's favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock, knew how to take all that handsome correctness and, in films like ``Suspicion'' and ``North by Northwest,'' confront impeccable poise with a sinister and chaotic world.
Grant did not so much grow old as outlive a time when to be suave was a virtue of sorts. He retired in the mid-'60s when Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman had become the beau ideal and anybody connected with fine manners or good tweeds or a smooth shave was dismissed as a decadent, a fraud, and a hypocrite.
It is hard to predict the durability of a product that was pure artifice to begin with - an actor's imitation of an English actor. Nobody in the future will imitate Cary Grant. He was too perfectly of his period. But style, it seems, has not gone out of style after all. Boys reaching 14 or 15 are still searching for a cool '80s version of suave.
Whatever the version, it is not likely to be as confident, as polished, as the Archie Leach who became Cary Grant, with just the hint of a subliminal wink in his eye to let us know the joke was on us.
A Wednesday and Friday column