The opening takes place in 1930. Mr. and Mrs. Gateley, an upper-crust family in the small town of Jordan, Ohio, escort their daughter Grace home from the train station. It is obvious that Grace has had some kind of mental breakdown; bars are put on the windows to her room and she is forbidden visitors. Especially forbidden is Tom Bates (Ronald Reagan), a young law student and Grace's boyfriend, whom the Gateleys blame for whatever happened to Grace. Scandal and gossip-mongering lead Tom to leave town to study law, and Grace remains shut up in her parents' house for years.
Meanwhile, a working-class couple, the Hagens, come home on the same train that bore the Gateleys. Mr. and Mrs. Hagen have adopted a newborn girl. Town gossips all come to the same conclusion—little Mary Hagen is the illegitimate daughter of Tom Bates and Grace Gateley. Seventeen years pass, and Mary Hagen (Shirley Temple) is a social outcast, without even knowing why. When now-prosperous lawyer Tom Bates comes back to Jordan after 17 years away, however, secrets are revealed.
A notorious critical and commercial bomb that torpedoed Temple's attempt to transition to grown-up actress and Reagan's attempt to become an A-list movie star. Reagan was later said to regard it as his Old Shame.
- Bad "Bad Acting": All the kids in the school play production of Romeo and Juliet, including Mary, utterly butcher the dialogue.
- Distant Prologue: The opening ten minutes cover the arrival of infant Mary and insane Grace on the train, and Tom's departure soon after, before jumping forward to 1947.
- Gossipy Hens: Everyone in the town, even Mary's best friend Sharon, gossips about her parentage. There's a whole sequence early in the film where all the middle-aged housewives call each other on the phone and reach definite conclusions about Tom and Grace being Mary's parents.
- Incest Subtext: For a movie that was made in 1947 the film has a shocking amount of this. Everybody in town thinks that Tom Bates is Mary's father, and the film leads viewers to think that Tom might be Mary's father. We eventually find out that Tom knows he is not Mary's father, but before that happens he starts to take a quasi-paternal role in Mary's life, looking out for her and providing for her future education. Additionally the film seems to be setting up a romantic pairing between Tom and Julia, until Julia says completely out of nowhere that she knows Tom really loves Mary, and steps aside.Julia: Now go to Mary and stop playing the father. You've been in love with the girl for weeks.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Julia nobly steps aside because she says she knows Tom loves Mary.
- Mathematician's Answer: Mrs. Hagen deflects a catty comment from one of the Gossipy Hens speculating about where Mary came from.Gossipy hen: Where in the world did she get that color hair and those eyes?
Mrs. Hagen: She was born with them.
- Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: One scene has Tom on an old-fashioned rowboat date, being rowed by Juila and Mary. There may be some Threesome Subtext in this film as well as Incest Subtext.
- Rich Bitch: Christine Delaney, the arrogant rich girl who looks down on Mary and pulls a power play to take the part of Juliet away from Mary in the school production of Romeo and Juliet.
- School Play: The high school puts on that old School Play chestnut, Romeo and Juliet. Besides the comedy from hearing Shakespeare's lines delivered very badly, it's a plot point, when Christine steals the lead part of Juliet and adds to Mary's despair.
- Thunder Equals Downpour: Two thunderclaps cue up a rainstorm in the scene where Sharon finally lets Mary know what everyone in town is gossiping about.
- Title Drop: All the gossips and unsympathetic authority figures regularly refer to poor Mary as "that Hagen girl".