Old-fashioned values lead a lawyer to forgo his love for a divorced countess and accept a socially acceptable marriage in this adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel.
Newland Archer (John Boles) tells his grandson, who may be involved in a scandal, his own story. The Wellands, parents of his fiancée May (Julie Haydon), ask Newland to postpone announcing their engagement because of Ellen's scandal. At the Wellands' party Countess Ellen Olenska (Irene Dunne) is welcomed back from Europe. Newland dances with Ellen, and she remembers him from childhood. The Wellands and her Granny Mingott (Helen Westley) are concerned about Ellen seeing Beaufort (Lionel Atwill). Ellen says Beaufort helped her find a house on W. 23rd Street in New York among artists, and she is getting a divorce, all of which shocks her family. The lawyer Newland warns Ellen that her husband in challenging the divorce could ruin her reputation. Ellen wants her freedom so that she can find love, but she is persuaded by Newland to give up the divorce. The family is pleased, but Newland is afraid she will become Beaufort's mistress. Newland sends Ellen roses and visits her new home, discouraging Beaufort and telling Ellen he changed his mind about her freedom. However, Ellen has learned considering others is important. Newland wants her to be happy.
Newland visits May in Florida to speed up the marriage, but she asks him if he has doubts. Returning to a family gathering in the snow, Newland finds Ellen and embraces her, saying May will understand. May has arrived though and says her parents have consented to the wedding. Ellen congratulates them. Honeymooning Ellen writes to Granny Mingott from Europe that she is happy, but Newland is distant. Newland and May return to see Granny, and Newland tells Ellen he thought of her. At the Wellands Newland tells Ellen she showed him a glimpse of real life, but his life is a sham. Newland meets Ellen at a museum and asks her to go away with him. She says such places are promiscuous but asks to go to Washington with him. However, May tells Ellen she is expecting, and Ellen sails for Europe. As she boards, she tells Newland they'll always be together. Years later his grandson takes him to see Ellen, but Newland declines to go in, saying he is old-fashioned.
This story explores the perpetual generation gap involving social values and the pressures high society and family put on personal desires. Ellen sacrifices her happiness for others' concerns, and Newland is not bold enough to break out of his expected pattern.