Sidney Howard adapted his play from the novel by Sinclair Lewis about a retired industrialist in Europe with his wife, who has affairs to prove she is still young.
Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) sold his motor car company after twenty years. He and his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) go to Europe to enjoy themselves. On the Queen Mary Clyde Lockert (David Niven) dances with Fran. On deck Dodsworth meets divorced Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), who says she is drifting. Fran tells Clyde that Dodsworth is not jealous. Clyde kisses her, but she objects and says goodnight. Dodsworth comes in, and Fran cries, saying she is afraid of herself.
In Paris Dodsworth goes sight-seeing. Fran meets Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas) and invites him to dine. Fran tells Edith she is 35, and Edith subtly warns her before leaving for Italy. Dodsworth tells Fran they are hicks. Fran suggests he go home, and they argue because she wants to stay in Europe. In New York Dodsworth is met by his daughter Emily (Kathryn Marlowe). At Geneva Fran goes boating with Arnold, who woos her. Dodsworth complains his house is being run differently, and he gets a cable that Fran is not coming home yet. He tells his friend Matey (Spring Byington) that Fran is afraid of getting old. He cables Fran he is coming to Paris and checks up on Arnold. Fran greets Dodsworth, and he learns she was in the same place as Arnold. Fran arranged separate bedrooms. Dodsworth summons Arnold and asks Fran if she wants a divorce. She says no, and Arnold leaves. Fran apologizes.
In December when Emily has her baby, Dodsworth and Fran are in Vienna. Fran doesn't want Kurt Von Obersdorf (Gregory Gaye) to know she is a grandmother. Dodsworth stays in while she goes out dancing with Kurt. Kurt loves Fran and wants to marry her; but she says they can't do anything. Kurt kisses her goodnight. Dodsworth tells Fran they must go home. She says she is going to marry Kurt. Dodsworth asks her to delay the divorce a couple months to be sure of Kurt. As Fran says good-bye to Dodsworth, he says he adores her.
Dodsworth travels alone in Europe and runs into Edith in Naples. She asks him to have lunch at her house, and he cooks for her. Edith invites Dodsworth to live there. Kurt brings his mother, the Baroness Von Obersdorf (Maria Ouspenskaya), to meet Fran. The Baroness refuses to give Kurt permission to marry Fran, objecting to the divorce and asking her if she will give him children. Kurt suggests postponing it, and Fran cries. She calls Dodsworth in Naples, where he is happily planning to take Edith with him and return to work. When he learns the divorce is off, he plans to go with Fran; but Edith objects that Fran makes him shrivel. He says Fran needs him, and Edith cries. On the ship Fran blames others, and Dodsworth decides to get off the boat and go back to Edith. In the final scene he arrives in a motor boat and waves to the happy Edith.
Materialistic Americans are contrasted to sophisticated Europeans. Fran fails to retrieve her fading beauty and does not have the inner resources that Dodsworth finds in Edith.