Based on Eugene O'Neill's play, a grieving woman manages to keep three men in her life by dividing her love between them. In this absorbing drama the audience gets to hear thoughts of the characters as well as the spoken words, a marvelous technique, though in this production the emotional tone of the acting seemed melodramatic to me.
Nina (Norma Shearer) welcomes back her old friend Charlie (Ralph Morgan), who thinks, "Spoken words are just a mask to disguise us." Nina is mourning the loss of Gordon in the war and regrets her father prevented their marriage. She goes to nurse soldiers, and her father dies a year later.
Sam (Alexander Kirkland) has asked Nina to marry him, but she says nothing until she is encouraged to do so by Dr. Ned Darrell (Clark Gable) and by Charlie, who is too afraid of life to tell her he loves her. Ned is not in love with her and wants to stay free, while Nina says she can't feel anything. Ned says she has been necking with the patients, and she asks Charlie to punish her. After the wedding Charlie visits Nina at the house of Sam's mother, who tells Nina not to have a child because of the hereditary insanity in their family. Fear of Sam going insane drove his father crazy, and his mother never told Sam in order to preserve his sanity. His mother tells Nina she wishes she had found another man to father her child, like with stock. Sam wants a child, and Nina tells Ned about the problem. Ned agrees with the mother's solution, and Nina loves Ned. Sam thinks of offering her a divorce. Ned kisses Nina, but he does not want to love her. Meanwhile Charlie is upset over his mother's death.
Nina wants to tell Sam her baby is Ned's. Ned tells Sam he is going to be a father just before he leaves to go to Europe. Sam is happy, and Nina can't tell him the truth. Charlie visiting the young family hopes that Nina sent Ned away. Ned comes back to tell Sam, because he loves Nina. Charlie helps Sam financially, because he is successful. Ned meets the child and asks Nina to go away with him; but she can't destroy Sam's life even though she loves Ned. She believes Ned will still love her, and he can't tell Sam, saying, "To kill happiness is a worse murder than to take life."
About ten years later Gordon hates Ned when he sees him kissing Nina. Nina asks Ned to go away again, and Ned gets Gordon not to tell his father what he saw because of honor. At a college rowing race Gordon (Robert Young) tells his mother he is going to marry Madeline, and Nina tries to prevent losing him by telling her about the family insanity; but Ned stops her. So she tells Charlie that and that Gordon is Ned's. After the race Sam has a stroke and dies. Gordon announces that Sam's will leaves $500,000 to Ned's research project. Gordon hopes Ned and Nina will marry; as he believes she has never been unfaithful, neither tells him the truth. Nina believes their lives have been good; but Ned says good-bye, leaving Nina with Charlie.
The fascinating voice-over enables us to understand better how each character's thoughts and feelings differ from their outward behavior and speech. Thus we can penetrate their psyches and hidden motives, making the gap between hopes and reality stark.