Based on Olive Prouty's novel, a woman quickly marries a wealthy man; but they separate, and she tries to raise her daughter as best she can.
In 1919 Stella (Barbara Stanwyck) argues with her brother Charlie (George Walcott), who works in a mill. Stella takes a lunch to meet Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who takes her out and kisses her. They marry and have a baby girl. Stella wants to go out and dances with Ed Munn (Alan Hale). Stephen is perturbed and asks Stella to give up some things. Stephen moves to New York for his work, but Stella refuses to go with him. While Ed is visiting Stella, Stephen comes home and wants to have the girl with him.
Stephen is buying a present for 13-year-old Laurel when he meets Helen Morrison (Barbara O'Neil) and her three sons. Miss Phillibrown (Ann Shoemaker) asks Stella if Laurel can go to museums with her. Stella is making a dress for Laurel (Anne Shirley). Ed comes in and teases Laurel, who runs out. Stella is on a train with Ed, who spreads itch powder and laughs. Miss Phillibrown and her friend object to Stella's behavior. Stella and her maid have a birthday party prepared for Laurel; but they are disappointed when Miss Phillibrown and others do not come. Laurel visits her father and Mrs. Morrison. Laurel enjoys a nice party with the sons and others. Laurel goes home, and Stella invites Ed for dinner. Laurel tells her mother that Mrs. Morrison is a rich and beautiful widow. Ed comes over drunk with a turkey, and Stephen arrives with Christmas presents. Stella pushes Ed out and gets dressed up for Stephen, who asks if Laurel can spend the holiday at Mrs. Morrison's. Stella agrees but hopes for more time. Ed comes back, and Stephen decides to leave right away with Laurel.
A lawyer tells Stella that Stephen wants a divorce, but Stella does not. Laurel has fun at a resort with Richard (Tim Holt), who gives her his fraternity pin. Stella wears a gaudy dress and looks for Richard's mother, but people laugh about her. Laurel realizes it is Stella and runs off. Laurel tells her mother she wants to go home. On the train Stella overhears the girls talking about her, and Laurel tries to comfort her mother. Stella calls on Mrs. Morrison and asks if she wants to marry Stephen and take care of Laurel. Mrs. Morrison says that Stella is unselfish. Stella says goodbye to Laurel. Mrs. Morrison welcomes Laurel to her new home; but Laurel says she could not leave her mother, who needs her. Stephen tells her that Stella wanted this, but Laurel wants to be with her mother. Stella gets a telegram from Mrs. Morrison and goes to Ed, telling him to take a bath and come over. Stella finds Laurel at home, says she is seeing Ed, and tells her to run along. Laurel goes back to her father and Mrs. Morrison crying and showing them a letter from Stella about marrying Ed. Richard comes to see Laurel. At Laurel's wedding Stella watches from outside in the rain and smiles.
Clashing social values and tastes place the unsophisticated mother in a challenging dilemma, but she proves her love for her daughter by letting her go on to the life she wants.