Stella Martin is young millworker who charms and cheers up mill executive Stephen Dallas when he is down-hearted over the suicide of his father and the marriage of his former fiancee, Helen, to another man. Stephen marries Stella on the rebound and they soon have a baby girl, Laurel, but Stella is lower class and Stephen is well-bred and they both want very different things. They are so mismatched that when Stephen is offered a job in New York, Stella refuses to go with him.
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Laurel grows up beautifully sweet, loving her mother and seeing her father every year, but it's obvious that Stella's vulgarity and low tastes are barring Laurel from friendships with “respectable” families, especially as the still-married Stella often pals around with a liquor-loving friend named Ed. Equally obvious, however, is how much Stella loves Laurel and aches over her child's lonely parties where her invited schoolmates never show up. When Laurel is nearly 13, Stephen becomes reacquainted with Helen, now a wealthy widow. Laurel spends her birthday with Stephen and Helen and tells Stella, who suspects the worst. But then Stephen comes home before Christmas, intending to have Stella and Laurel spend the holidays with him and he sees Ed and it's his turn to suspect the worst. He asks Stella for a divorce so he can marry Helen. Trying to show Laurel that she has just as much to offer her as Stephen and Helen will, Stella takes Laurel on a fancy trip, with the unexpected result that she overhears to what extent she's been a disadvantage to her daughter. Stella's love makes her unwilling to stand in Laurel's way, so she asks Helen to take care of Laurel after she marries Stephen, then Stella pretends to Laurel that she's tired of having a kid around so Laurel will leave her. Years later, Laurel is getting married and Stella, as unrefined as ever, can't stay away—or can she?