powered by AFI
In 1906, as the wealthy Kahly family of Wisconsin happily prepare for an engagement party for their daughter Edna and their adopted daughter Charlotte, the girls promise always to remain close and be happy. Edna, who excitedly told her sister that a young man brashly proposed to her at their father's bank, is shocked when the man, Texan Sam Gladney, comes to her engagement party. An associate of Mr. Kahly, Sam is going home to open a flour mill, but tells Edna that they will marry when he returns next year, even though she is engaged to another man. Edna sees him off at the train station, and over the course of the following months, they correspond and become engaged. On the day that Sam returns, Mr. and Mrs. Keats, Charlotte's future in-laws, tell the Kahlys that their son Allan cannot marry her because she was a "nameless" foundling. Although Allan insists that he will never marry anyone else, Charlotte, who had not known that she was illegitimate, kills herself. Two years later, Edna, who has moved to Texas and married Sam, gives birth prematurely to a boy and is told that she can have no more children. On Christmas Day, a few years later, the family is very happy, but tragedy strikes when their little Sammy drowns in a pony cart accident. Edna hides her grief by becoming a society hostess until Sam and Dr. Max Bresler, who attended her at Sammy's birth, help her to realize that she can fulfill herself by caring for other children. She and Sam set up a day nursery for working mothers, which they finance from their own fortune, but when the price of wheat declines, Sam loses his mill and must sell everything. They then move to Fort Worth and Sam works very hard at a mill job while trying in his spare time to develop a new wheat process. On the day that Edna takes his new process to be notarized, she sees some children in a courtroom and discovers that they are orphans, tagged like cattle, and rejected by prospective adoptive parents because they are illegitimate. She brings two children home, one of whom, a baby named Tony, is ill. With very little money, she opens a storefront orphanage called the Texas Children's Home and Aid Society and arranges for adoptions for her charges, making certain parents and children are well suited for each other. When the wife of a city councilman is not given special treatment by Edna, she feels insulted and convinces the council to close the home for zoning violations. The day that Edna loses the home, Sam collapses, and as he dies, he tells her to keep up the fight. Edna then travels throughout Texas, collecting coins in a milk bottle, and eventually she is able to open a large new home. As the years pass, Edna finds good homes for many children, but realizes that she has additional work to do when she receives a donation from a despondent young woman who discovered that she was illegitimate when she applied for a marriage license. Touched by the similarity between this young woman and Charlotte, Enda determines to change the law that brands children for life and fights to have the word "illegitimate" removed from birth certificates. Her bill is championed by Senator T. R. Cotton, and after she makes an impassioned plea before the Texas legislature, it passes into law. On Christmas Eve, Max tells Edna that he has found a good family for Tony, who is now healthy and as close to Edna as her own son. She wants to give up her work and dedicate herself to him, but just as she is about to go away with him, a policeman comes to the door with two orphans and she realizes that she must help them. She then lets Tony go to his new parents, and as the family leaves, she sits with her two new children.