LIKE CLARA BOW, GARY COOPER had "It." In his early films -- from the horse operas like The Virginian ("When you call me that . . . smile! ), to dramas like City Streets and A Farewell to Arms, to froth like Design for Living and Desire -- the young star was a piece of cake, fusing equal parts of beef and cheese. Off screen he was enjoying tempestuous affairs with his mentor, Bow, and the Mexican actress "spitfire" Lupe Velez, as well as vacationing in a sumptuous Italian villa with the wealthy and much older Countess Dorothy Taylor di Frasso. (He called her "Do"; she dubbed him "Big Boy." And when Cooper failed to materialize at a California party, Tallulah Bankhead, his costar in The Devil and the Deep, ventured the opinion: "He's probably worn to a frasso.")

On screen, when Marlene Dietrich kicked off her heels at the end of Morocco to follow her legionnaire barefoot across the desert, the audience understood. In fact, it was in watching this particular film that Cooper's future wife, socialite Veronica ("Rocky") Balfe, first fell in love with him. After his marriage the star settled down and his film career began to reflect the change. From the lanky hero whose hesitant delivery gave him a kind of indolent appeal, he evolved into the quizzical, self-effacing Everyman of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Sergeant York, whose native intelligence and courage always rescued him during the final moments of personal crisis.

The archetype continued through the '40s and '50s, reinforced by constant underplaying and willful sincerity, and it was only when opposite much younger actresses like Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls (which Hemingway wrote with Cooper in mind to play the hero Robert Jordan) and Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead did glimmers of the sexual combustion he used to generate appear again. (In Love n the Afternoon, Audrey Hepburn, by focusing all of her ingenue erotic energy -- which was considerable -- on the 55-year-old Cooper, transformed him from schoolmarm to schoolboy.) By the end of his career, while the actor was suffering physically, his film roles became more reflective, as with The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and Friendly Persuasion, as if he had begun to question the images foisted upon him.

When Cooper died of cancer in 1961, the impressive body of work he left behind was only part of his legacy. Larry Swindell presents an appropriately well-rounded account of the man and the myth in The Last Hero: A Biography of Gary Cooper, which is a fascinating blend of personal history and film scholarship, scrupulously researched and vividly written. The author sees his subject as something of a paradox. A Montana-born hunter and cowboy who surrounded himself with elegant clothes and accountrements: a shy, humble youngster who quickly garnered the reputation of "Paramount's paramount skirt-chaser"; later, a devoted husband and father who fell unexpectedly and passionately into a well-publicized relationship with Patricia Neal; and, finally, the actor who appeared uninspired and listless on the set, but when on screen translated into something vibrant and magical.

As the paradoxes are developed, the star is kept remarkably in perspective. Cooper's performances are carefully analyzed as Swindell astutely compares the star with other actors of the different Hollywood eras, spinning off cogent minibiographies of those directors and performers with whom the actor rubbed elbows. The writer is, however, like Stuart Kaminsky, the author of Coop: The Life and Legend of Gary Cooper, reluctant to discuss any possible chinks in the Cooper armor, including rumors of bisexuality in the actor's early days in Hollywood. (Kaminsky says such specualtion is "irrelevant"; while Swindell, who delves into the subject a bit more, defines Cooper not by any account as a homosexual but "merely" as a cooperative fellow.") Both writers also minimize the star's involvement with the House Un-American Activities Committee and the importance of his appearance as a friendly witness before it.

The Kaminsky book is essentially a caeer record -- about a third of which is taken up with a bibliography and a detailed filmography -- in which each Cooper film is perused, critiqued and disposed of in a few paragraphs. Inventory is taken of the various tics and mannerisms the star employed from film to film (Kaminsky is big on hands), while a smidgen of background information is provided to make the package more palatable to the casual reader. The main selling point is exclusive interviews with Frank Capra, King Vidor, Patricia Neal, Fay Wray and others. Unfortunately, instead of illuminating the subject, this corral of talent is nothing more than a cheering section. (One interesting discrepancy: While Swindell makes a lot of noise about a supposed Cooper-Ingrid Bergman liaison, Kaminsky quotes Bergman as being amusingly oblivious to the racket: "Although I never got to be a really close friend to Gary Cooper, my daughter Pia and his daughter Marie did play together quite a bit.")

Kaminsky does well with the general outlines of Cooper's career, clustering films into specific, defined periods and discussing the "feminine" elements of emotional sensitivity and delicacy in the actor's personality, which, with the image of "masculine" strength, was probably responsible for Cooper's enormous popularity. Yet, next to the Swindell volume, this short critical biography is a barking mutt at the heels of a thoroughbred. The Last Hero, like its subject, steps into the winner's circle unassumingly but quite splendidly.