In the first film of Somerset Maugham's novel a medical student falls in love with a waitress, who loves others instead until it's too late.
In France a painting teacher tells Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) his talent is mediocre. So he studies medicine in London, where his club foot is examined by the class. A friend asks Carey to help him get to know a waitress, Mildred (Bette Davis); he tries to make her smile, sketches her, and invites her to dinner and the theater. In bed he fantasizes about her. He asks her not to say, "I don't mind," but she does anyway when he asks her out. Outgoing Emil Miller (Alan Hale) tells Carey he is too artistic. Mildred cancels her date with Carey and waits for Miller. Carey tries to study, visualizes Mildred, and fails his exam. After kissing her outside her door, Carey buys a ring and asks Mildred to marry him; but she says she is marrying Miller, who makes good money.
Norah (Kay Johnson) tells Carey she writes romance stories. She loves Carey and makes him study. Mildred returns to Carey, saying her husband left and she is going to have a baby. Carey gives her money and then asks Miller to take care of her; but he denies he married her. Carey still likes Mildred, and she says she will do anything for him, cooking his dinner. Carey tells Norah it's over. She and Carey regret that one always loves more than the other. Carey is bound to Mildred, as Norah is to Carey, and as Mildred was to Miller. Mildred gives her baby to a nurse. Carey invites Harry Griffiths (Reginald Denny) so that Mildred won't be bored. Griffiths makes her laugh, and Carey pays the bill. Carey buys Mildred a dress and tells her Griffiths does not love her; but she shows him a note to the contrary. Carey calls her cheap and vulgar; she slaps him and goes to Paris with Griffiths.
Griffiths tells Carey he and Mildred are "all washed up." At a hospital Carey meets Sally (Frances Dee) and is invited by her father. Carey dines with him while Sally serves them. Carey visits them occasionally. Learning Mildred and her baby are hard up, he takes them in. Mildred tells Carey she loves him; but he says she disgusts him. She calls him a cripple, tears up his things, and burns his securities.
Carey is given an operation on his foot and is visited by Sally. Walking normally, Carey tries to find a job. He loses his apartment and visits Sally. Her father takes him in and gives him a job. An ill and coughing Mildred tells Carey her baby died. He inherits money and is to be a doctor on a ship. Sally cries, and Carey asks her to marry when he returns. Griffiths finds Mildred collapsed and tells Carey it is no use. In the final scene Carey and Sally decide to get married right away.
This realistic portrayal of frequent unrequited love shows the negative side of the sexual bond. Sadly, Mildred's tendency to turn destructive when relationship is tested ends in her own demise. Carey, the shy introvert, has difficulty expressing his feelings but eventually matures enough to find a possibly balanced relationship.