Based on Louis Bromfield's book, a circus performer fathers a son and gets rich in the automobile business; but his relationships fall apart, and he loses it all.
Pierre Rodier (Richard Barthelmess) rides horses in the circus, where his mother works. He has an affair with Joanna (Jean Muir), but his mother Azais (Marjorie Rambeau) advises him to wait a year to see if he really loves her. Azais tells Pierre his father is a rich European businessman. Pierre finds Azais drinking with Joanna's father, who tells Pierre Joanna needs money; drunk, he is killed by a train. Pierre wants to marry Joanna, but she plans to marry Elmer Croy. Pierre gives her money for the baby.
Henry Mueller (Hobart Cavanaugh) tells Pierre they could open a bicycle shop if Pierre gets $300. Joanna's aunt introduces Leah (Florence Eldridge) to Pierre. Pierre visits his child, but Joanna won't see him. Pierre borrows $300 from Leah and starts the bicycle business with Mueller, who soon builds an automobile. Homer Flint (Arthur Hohl) offers to buy the car. Leah calls on Azais for a psychic reading and is told she can't hold the younger man who is ambitious. Azais pities her and says Pierre is a new person. Pierre tells Leah he is an American citizen - Paul Rader, and he pays his debt to her. Leah realizes their relationship is over. Mueller tells Paul he is leaving the car factory.
Paul goes out with Flint's daughter Hazel (Dorothy Burgess) and while driving a car asks her to marry him. Little Pierre Croy asks to carry Paul's golf clubs, and Paul gives his son money. Paul tells Hazel he is working late; she is unhappy. At his office Paul tells Joanna that he wants to help Pierre and see him. Paul tells Flint they should go into munitions, and they do from 1914 to 1918. Paul takes Pierre on a train to school. Paul meets Claire Benson (Verree Teasdale) and invests in stock. Pierre thanks Paul for the new car. Flint warns Paul he is being taken in by a crooked Wall Street trader. Paul tells Pierre he is his father and warns him about drinking.
Paul goes to New York to see Claire. Hazel breaks into his desk and finds letters to Pierre and Paul's will leaving all his property to his son. Claire tells Paul he cost her $70,000, and the stock trader is gone. Paul learns that Pierre died in a car accident. He finds his desk open and tells Hazel he never wants to see her again. Paul recalls how he has been rejected. He visits Azais and says it is all gone. She tells him now he knows what is real. Paul says, "Maybe someday I'll be worthy of you."
This modern parable of the ambitious businessman, whose drive to success allows little time for meaningful relationships, spans the first third of the 20th century. Has he or the audience learned from his failures?