Artists struggle to survive in Paris, and a poor woman sacrifices herself to help a young playwright.
In the Latin quarter of Paris in 1830 the landlord demands rent from Rodolphe (John Gilbert) and the painter Marcel (Gino Corrado), who loses his model. Mimi (Lillian Gish) embroiders and is to be evicted. Schaunard (George Hassell) asks Rodolphe for a loan. Rodolphe sees Mimi leaving. He goes to his editor and sells an article about a cat.
On the street Vicomte Paul (Roy D'Arcy) apologizes to Mimi for his horses disturbing her. Marcel says he sold a painting, and Schaunard begged with a monkey to get the rent. Mimi pawned things but does not have the full amount. Rodolphe pays the rent for the four men.
Musette (Renée Adorée) invites Marcel to dine with her. He asks her if Schaunard can come. Schaunard asks Bernard. Mimi calls on Rodolphe, who puts the leg of a chair in the stove. Mimi leaves, and the feast comes to Rodolphe. Musette invites Mimi to eat. Paul calls on Mimi and orders embroidery work. Rodolphe tells Mimi that he is jealous.
In the spring Mimi goes on a picnic with Rodolphe. They dance and play and kiss. Rodolphe works on his play. Mimi takes his article; but it is late, and the editor fires him. Mimi gives Rodolphe money and says it is from the editor. Rodolphe tells her about his first act.
Mimi works all night, and Madame Benoit (Mathilde Comont) warns she will lose her looks. Rodolphe embraces Mimi. Paul tells Mimi that he could talk to the theater manager about Rodolphe's play. Rodolphe sees Paul with Mimi and accuses her of locking him in. Jealous Rodolphe goes away for four days.
At a ballet Mimi tells Paul that she has Rodolphe's play. At a café Rodolphe sees his editor and learns that he was discharged five weeks ago. The theater manager tells Mimi that he will talk to Rodolphe. Mimi sees that Rodolphe was in her room. She changes clothes quickly before he comes in. He asks if she got the money from Paul. Mimi says she has been working for him and his play. Rodolphe calls her a liar. He apologizes and says he will give up his play. He brings a doctor for her; but he finds a note saying she left so that his play will succeed.
Months go by, and Rodolphe's play is cheered. Mimi works in the slums and collapses. Rodolphe celebrates and drinks to Mimi. A doctor says that Mimi will die that night. She gets up and struggles to go to Rodolphe. Benoit picks her up and carries her in. He puts her in her bed and tells Rodolphe. He kisses her, but she can hardly see and asks about his play. Friends crowd around. Mimi tells Musette that she is happy because of Rodolphe's success. Mimi dies. Rodolphe laments and remembers their picnic.
This romantic drama reflects the sacrifice a woman often
makes to help the career of a young man she loves. In modern civilization
the quest to achieve success in the arts often requires years
of personal sacrifices.