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After frantically searching for her lost daughter Susie at Coney Island, an attractive widow named Lora Meredith finds her playing with Sarah Jane, a light-skinned black girl. Lora then meets Sarah Jane's single black mother, Annie Johnson, and a white photographer named Steve Archer, who takes some photographs of the girls. Lora discovers that Annie and Sarah Jane have no place to go, and although she is poor herself, having come to New York in search of an acting career, she invites the two to stay the night in her small apartment. In exchange for her small room, Annie offers to keep house and look after Susie while Lora seeks acting and modeling jobs. One evening, Steve comes by with the photographs, and the next day, he takes Lora to lunch, obviously smitten with her. Later, Lora invents a lie that gets her into the office of Allen Loomis, a well-known theatrical agent, but when he tries to make love to her, arguing that a successful actress must be willing to satisfy such requests, she angrily leaves. Back home, she sobs in frustration while Annie attempts to comfort and encourage her. One cold day, Annie brings Sarah Jane's galoshes to school, where she discovers that her daughter has been trying to conceal her race from her classmates. When Sarah Jane runs from Annie, her distressed mother turns to Lora and asks, "How do you explain to your child that she was born to be hurt?" Soon afterward, Steve, who has just been hired to promote a brand of beer, proposes to Lora, but she turns him down, saying that even though she loves him, marriage would prevent her from steadfastly pursuing a life in the theater. Just then, Loomis offers her a role in a new comedy by well-known writer David Edwards, but Steve forbids her to visit Loomis, prompting her to accuse him of settling for less in his own career. During her audition, Lora suggests that David rewrite portions of his play, and though angry at first, he soon realizes she is right. After Lora is cast and the play and its new leading actress are hugely successful, the papers report that "a new star is born" on Broadway. For the next ten years, Lora stars in one hit David Edwards play after another. The playwright wants to marry her, but as she admits one day to Annie, who still works for her, she does not really love him. Lora and David argue when she decides to appear in another writer's drama, but her performance is brilliant, and this play, too, becomes an instant hit. Surprised and overjoyed by a visit from Steve, Lora confesses she still loves him, and the two are reunited. Susie, who has suffered from her busy mother's lack of attention despite the material advantages Lora has provided her, looks forward to taking a trip with Steve and Lora, but the plans are canceled when Lora excitedly accepts a coveted role in an Italian film. Meanwhile, Sarah Jane tells Susie that she secretly has been seeing her white boyfriend, and that she would rather die than be considered black. When the young man learns that Sarah Jane's mother is black, however, he beats her. While Lora is filming in Italy, Steve looks after Susie, and the eager teenager soon falls in love with him. Sarah Jane, meanwhile, claims to have accepted a job in a New York library, but Annie finds her singing and dancing in a seedy New York nightclub. Her mother's appearance gets Sarah Jane fired, and she again runs from her, causing Annie to faint. Back home, Annie tells Lora, who has just returned from Europe, that she will no longer interfere in her daughter's life, adding that she does hope to help her wayward daughter somehow. Steve, now a company vice-president, learns that Sarah Jane is working as a chorus girl in Los Angeles, and Annie, convinced she is dying, flies to California for one last look at her daughter. Sarah Jane is furious, exclaiming, "I'm somebody else, I'm white." Annie then introduces herself to Sarah Jane's white friend as Sarah Jane's former nanny and leaves, but not before Sarah Jane tearfully embraces her. Meanwhile, Lora and Susie argue over Steve. When Susie accuses Lora of loving her career more than her, Lora offers to give Steve up, but Susie has decided to go away to college. The two mothers are now alone in the house. One day, Annie tells Lora to make certain all her possessions are left to Sarah Jane and then, after reassuring her old friend that she is "going to glory," dies. Lora breaks down, but sees to it that Annie has the elaborate funeral she had requested. As the long cortege moves slowly along the street, Sarah Jane pushes through the crowds, flings herself on her mother's coffin, and weeps hysterically. Lora and Susie gently lead her into the hearse, where they reassure her that she did not cause her mother's death. As Steve looks on, the three women join hands in a gesture of comfort and love.