Based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, a dentist marries a woman who has won the lottery; but she refuses to spend any of that money, and they suffer poverty.
In 1908 McTeague (Gibson Gowland) ruthlessly searches for gold. His mother (Tempe Pigott) persuades him to become a dentist in San Francisco. Maria, who works for him, sells lottery tickets to Marcus (Jean Hersholt) and his girlfriend Trina Sieppe (Zasu Pitts). McTeague works on Trina's teeth every day for two weeks. He gives her ether and kisses her.
McTeague tells Marcus that he misses Trina, and Marcus says that he will give her up for his friend. Marcus takes McTeague to meet her parents in Oakland. McTeague visits Trina twice a week. He asks her to marry, but she is reluctant. They get engaged. Trina learns that she has won $5,000 in the lottery. After a party Marcus and McTeague let Trina and her family stay in their rooms.
McTeague weds Trina. They receive presents, and he gives her two birds in a cage. After feasting, Trina says goodbye to her family. She is afraid when McTeague kisses her.
Trina saves money and avoids expenses. McTeague wants to buy a house, but she says no. On their night out Marcus asks McTeague to pay him back. Marcus resents losing Trina and her money. He breaks McTeague's pipe and throws a knife at him.
Trina tells McTeague that her mother wants them to send her $50. He tells Trina she is becoming stingy. She says no one will touch her $5,000. Marcus visits them and says he is going away. They say goodbye, and Trina is glad.
McTeague gets a letter that he could be prosecuted for not having a dentist license. Trina suspects Marcus, and McTeague loses his practice.
McTeague tells Trina that he was fired from the surgical factory. She demands his pay and won't even give him a nickel for car fare. A man sees McTeague in the rain and buys him a drink. McTeague tells Trina to give him his money back, and they quarrel.
McTeague drinks, and at home she gives him some money. Trina scrimps to save and lies to McTeague. He leaves with a fishing pole and the cage of birds. Trina gets a job as a scrub woman so that she won't have to use her savings.
One night McTeague knocks on her window, but Trina won't let him in. He finds her working and demands the $5,000. He beats her unconscious and takes her bag of gold coins. A reward of $100 is offered for McTeague. Marcus says he can identify him.
The posse follows McTeague to Death Valley. McTeague walks with a mule and stops at the last waterhole. The posse is going to go around Death Valley, but Marcus goes across on a horse, which collapses. Marcus walks on and finishes his water. He finds McTeague sleeping and threatens him with his gun. The mule walks off, and Marcus shoots it. The water is gone, and they realize they will die. Yet they fight over the gold, and McTeague knocks out Marcus. McTeague is handcuffed to Marcus. He takes the bird from the cage and lets it go.
This drama carries to an absurdity the idea of not spending
one's savings and thus becomes a parable for the greed that comes
out of insecurity.