Based on Lillian Roth’s autobiography, a stage mother helps her daughter become a successful singer; but Lillian suffers disappointments with men and starts drinking more and more until she hits bottom and goes to Alcoholics Anonymous.
Katie Roth (Jo Van Fleet) takes her little daughter Lillian (Carole Ann Campbell) to an audition in New York City, and she urges her to introduce herself after being rejected. Lillian gets upset and asks what is a “stage mother”? Her mother pushes her down and tells her never to say that again.
On a hot day boys douse David (David Kasday) and Lillian with water. Her mother tells her they are going to Chicago for an audition. Lillian gets opportunities on stage with her mother’s help.
Years later Lillian Roth (Susan Hayward) in a Paramount studio sings “Sing You Sinners.” The producer tells Lillian and her mother she was good. Lillian gets a phone message from David Tredman (Ray Danton) and visits him in a hospital. He says he is a lawyer for clients in show business. A month later Lillian asks David when she will see him again. She asks him to hold her and not go. They kiss.
David visits Katie in New York, and she thanks him for getting Lillian work. She says she has been making sacrifices. David says each of the three has the right to decide what they want. He wants to have a home, a wife, and a family. Lillian comes in, and David asks her what she wants. Lillian tells her mother that she wants to be David’s wife. Katie is upset and says she is a star. Lillian says she wants a home with David and to sing only when she wants to.
In her dressing-room Lillian gets ready, and David feels ill. David calls her from the hospital. Lillian goes on stage and sings “When the Red, Red, Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” Katie tells Lillian that the hospital called. Lillian runs out and goes to the hospital, realizes David died, and cries. Lillian rests at home, and a doctor recommends a sanitarium. Katie says they can cancel the tour, but Lillian says that she wants to sing.
Lillian takes her nurse Ellen (Virginia Gregg) on her tour, and she reads her good reviews with her mother. Lillian meets two soldiers who say they liked her show. Lillian tells her mother that she does not want to go out with her. Her mother tells her she is doing the wrong thing. Lillian says she is doing what is not for her good. She asks her mother to leave her alone. Katie says she wants her to be happy and says she can leave for a while. She asks Ellen to take good care of Lillian. Ellen tells Lillian to forget. Lillian says that is what is killing her. Lillian feels confused and describes her hurt. When she reaches out, she finds nothing but herself. Ellen gives Lillian a drink so that she can sleep.
Lillian says it helped her sleep, and every night she drinks herself to sleep. She feels she is a great singer, and they like her. The soldier Wallie (Don Taylor) asks Lillian for a date, and she says yes. They go out dancing and get drunk; he kisses her. She wakes up in her hotel room, and he is laying on the other bed. He offers her a drink, and she says no. She says it is Monday, and she has a matinee. He says they got married, but she did not remember it.
They try many things, but they always drink. They try to forget that their marriage is a mistake. Wallie says she is disgusting. He says they have been doing it for a year, and he is tired of being Mrs. Lillian Roth. He says he could have been a pilot, but she said no. He decides to go to Pittsburgh and says his lawyer will call her.
At a party Lillian says she broke up with her husband two years ago. She meets Tony Bardeman (Richard Conte), and he asks her to sing a song. She drinks, and he says he does not want one. She and Tony help restrain drunk Joe. In a room Tony beats up Joe. He tells Lillian that drinking too much is a sickness. He says he is leaving for California, and she asks him to stay and spend tomorrow with her.
Lillian prepares lunch, and Katie comes in. She tells her mother about Tony. Lillian pours herself a drink, and Katie tells her she is drinking too much and that not enough money is coming in. Lillian says she will stop today, and she writes a check. Lillian tells her mother to take the cab to lunch, and she walks to a bar. She asks for water, but they give her drinks. The waitress suggests that she get a flask.
At home Lillian feels her nerves and tries not to drink. She gets drunk again and becomes a secret drinker. She makes excuses for drinking. She asks for a chair on stage and leans on it while singing “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.” She staggers backstage and trips down the stairs.
Tony calls on Lillian, who says he should have called. She says she has been drunk every day since he left. She asks him how he learned to stop drinking. She has tried and says she is desperate. He admits that he needs her, and he says she needs him. He suggests they go on the wagon together. He says he has to go to Chicago for a couple weeks. She wants to go with him. He is going to get $5,000, and she offers it to him.
On a train Lillian blames herself for causing his deal to fall through in Chicago. He says they have a lifetime to help each other. A waiter brings in a bottle, and he takes a drink. He takes the bottle away from her. He drinks, and then she starts drinking too. He won’t let her leave.
Lillian is drunk at the bar. Tony restrains her, and she asks why some men get mean. As she walks away, he trips her. She gets in a cab, but he pulls her out. While she lays on the bed, Tony answers the phone and talks to Katie. He says they are married. While he is asleep, Lillian gets up at night, puts on a fur coat, and goes out. A streetcar man tells her it is the end of the line. She pawns her fur coat. She collapses on a bar, and the bartender says they are closing. She is drunk in a bar. Men ask who she is, and she reverts to childhood. She shares a room with the man. Lillian wanders on the street drunk and collapses. An Asian family gives her some water.
Lillian plays solitaire and sees a notice about herself in the newspaper. Katie offers her coffee, and Lillian says she needs a bottle and throws a tantrum. Katie cries and says it is her fault. Katie says she tried to make her successful because her husband left her with nothing. Lillian tries to console her and says she can cry tomorrow. Lillian says she will go out and get some food. She gets a hotel room, and the butler opens the window. She sits at the desk. She looks down at the street from a great height. She starts to jump out but stops herself and prays to God for help.
She wakes up on the floor, combs her hair, puts on lipstick, and goes to Alcoholics Anonymous. They ask her to tell them about it. She meets Burt (Eddie Albert) and gives him her mother’s phone number. She says she started drinking when she was eighteen and never stopped. She says she needs a drink, but she does not want a drink.
Eddie helps Lillian, and others tell her mother that she cannot see her yet. Lillian is delirious and calls him David. Later she wakes up and says she gave him a hard time. He says drying out is the worst. They help her walk and rest in the hotel room. She says she tried to kill herself there. Eddie says she quarreled with fate, and it leads to self-pity, self-hate, and self-destruction. He tells how he hit the bottom and decided to live. He tells her the A. A. serenity prayer.
Burt speaks at the A. A. meeting and welcomes those who are new. Richard says he is an alcoholic and tells his story. A woman says she started drinking when she was fourteen. Eddie says the choice is to die or to fight and live.
Eddie tells Lillian that she does not need a sponsor anymore. He says he likes music. He plays piano, and she sings several songs. She says she sang for him.
A few weeks later Lillian asks Eddie for advice. She says she was offered a tour and a movie role about her life. He says it could do good but harm if she slipped back. He says it is her life, and she has to decide. He says she does not need him anymore. She says he is afraid to let himself love her. She says that together they can help each other. He kisses her.
Lillian is going to tell her story on the television program “This Is Your Life.”
This dramatic biography is a fairly accurate though simplified portrayal of the complicated life of Lillian Roth, who was married eight times. Her career began when she was six, and she was very successful for the next twenty years. After her alcoholic years, her autobiography sold more than seven million copies. Her story reflects the difficulties of being a child star who is controlled by other people.