It is a Bio Pic of Edna Gladney, a Real Life advocate for orphans and "illegitimate" children. The story opens with Edna Kahly as the daughter of a wealthy Wisconsin family. Edna has an adopted sister, Charlotte, who was a Doorstop Baby taken in by the Kahlys many years ago. Charlotte's impending marriage to a nice young local man is disrupted when her fiancé's parents discover her illegitimacy. Charlotte promptly kills herself.
Edna marries Sam Gladney (Walter Pidgeon), a well-to-do wheat farmer from Texas, and they have a son. But tragedy strikes when the boy is killed in a carriage accident. Edna, unable to have any more children, dedicates herself to taking care of orphans. She founds an orphanage dedicated to pairing off children with adoptive parents and fights obstructive bureaucrats who try to shut her down. When Edna is further reminded of the stigma of illegitimacy, she campaigns to have the designation "illegitimate" removed from Texas birth certificates.
Provides examples of:
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Very evident when Edna is affecting outrage at Sam's proposition of marriage when he first meets her.
- Conflict Ball: So—why doesn't Edna adopt little Tony for her own child, huh? Huh? Why can't Edna be a mother? Why does the couple who asks for Tony have to have him, the one that Edna's bonded with the most and not any other child at the orphanage? Why? To make this movie more of a Tearjerker, that's why.
- Death of a Child: The Gladneys' cute young son is killed in a carriage accident.
- Doorstop Baby: The bulk of Edna's job involves taking in foundlings.
- Driven to Suicide: Charlotte kills herself when her illegitimacy is brought up and becomes an obstacle to her marriage with Alan.
- Fiery Redhead: The Technicolor photography shows off Garson's flaming red hair, and it matches Edna Gladney's personality, as she becomes a tireless and outspoken advocate for orphaned and illegitimate children.
- Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: The slimy dirtbag of a father who's dropping off his infant son after his wife's Death by Childbirth is ostentatiously puffing up a storm in Edna's office.
- Hand Gagging: Stops a little girl from saying the word "whore."
- Hard-Work Montage: A montage shows Edna crisscrossing Texas, relentlessly collecting funds for her wards, in the form of coins dropped into milk bottles.
- Heartwarming Orphan: All of the cute little kids that wind up under Edna's care. Little red-headed Tony with his lame leg gets the most screen time.
- Moral Guardians: All the sour, mean people of Texas who wish to keep the "illegitimate" label on birth certificates as a stigma of immorality. Three cruel old women stop in Edna's office and tell her that the designation is required to segregate bad people from good people. A Texas state legislator demands it in order to punish immorality.
- Orphanage of Love: What Edna founds, an institution dedicated to taking care of children and matching them up with good parents.
- Parental Abandonment: One particularly loathsome father drops off his newborn son at Edna's orphanage (the mother died in childbirth) because he just doesn't want to be bothered with taking care of the baby. When said father finds out the baby was adopted by a rich family, he comes back, looking for a payoff.
- Rich Bitch
- Sarah, the nasty sour snob who refuses to let her son Alan marry poor Charlotte.
- Then there's Mrs. Gilworth, a vain and snobby woman who comes to Edna's orphanage to adopt a child, with the sort of casualness one might have when adopting a dog. When she's rejected, Mrs. Gilworth goes to the board of supervisors and gets Edna's orphanage shut down.
- Romantic False Lead: In the opening scene Edna is at a dance with her fiance, one Damon McPherson. Then tall, handsome Sam Gladney pops up, and Damon is forgotten about.
- Tearjerker: Little kids die, husbands die, adored orphans are given away for no particular reason. This movie desperately wants to make the viewer cry.
- Time-Passes Montage: A montage featuring several anniversary cards from Sam to Edna shows time passing, and also shows that Sam's wheat business is prospering as the presents get fancier.
- Uncle Tomfoolery: Some really racist comic relief with various Gladney servants. Zeke says stuff like "I sure is powerfully glad to see you", and is so servile he offers to work for the Gladneys for free after they go broke. Another black servant is too dumb to realize that washing a thermometer in hot water might throw off the reading for a little bit.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Like most biopics of the era, heavily fictionalized. For instance, there was no adoptive sister Charlotte who was illegitimate; it was Edna herself who was an illegitimate child of low-class origin. And Gladney did not have a son to conveniently die in order to make a biopic about her even sadder.