Two English families experience great events early in the 20th century in this Oscar-winning adaptation of Noel Coward's play.
On the eve of the new century Robert Marryot (Clive Brook) and his servant Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin) are going off to South Africa for the Boer War. Little Edward and Joey play soldiers and make little Edith be the Boers. Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard) objects, cries, and worries. At a play the relief of Mafeking is announced to a jubilant audience. The soldiers return home. Alfred Bridges bought a pub from a man in South Africa. The families mourn during Queen Victoria's funeral procession. For his outstanding war service Alfred is knighted.
In 1908 Ellen Bridges (Una O'Connor) complains that Alfred has not paid the rent to the Brewers. Jane and young Edward visit the Bridges, but Alfred comes in drunk. The drunk pub owner soon dies in an accident. Little Fanny Bridges wins a dance contest, while grown-up Edward (John Warburton) and Edith Harris (Margaret Lindsay) say they are going to a concert and slip away to the beach, planning marriage and an ocean voyage. On April 14, 1912 they are happy on the ocean liner Titanic.
In 1914 Jane and Margaret Harris (Irene Browne) return tired from a journey. Robert tells his son Joey (Frank Laughton) the war cannot last more than three months. War is declared, but Jane won't drink to it. Joey in uniform sees Fanny Bridges (Ursula Jeans) dancing and goes to her dressingroom. Bombs fall during the blackout. Soldiers march and are killed for four years. Joey tells Fanny he is the only surviving officer in his regiment. They love each other, but Fanny says marriage is too difficult during the war. Joey says good-bye to her and then to his mother. Returning to the war, Joey sees his father, who is the Railway Transport Officer. On the day of the Armistice Ellen Bridges visits Jane Marryot, saying she wants Joey and Fanny to get married. Jane tells Ellen she should have talked with Fanny first. Then Jane gets a telegram that Joey is dead. The soldiers are welcomed home, while those blinded learn crafts and braille. Various men talk of disarmament, poison gas as security, balancing the budget, and preach from the pulpit. In the jazz-age twenties Fanny sings "The 20th-Century Blues." Finally the elderly Jane and Robert celebrate the new year 1933, drinking to their two dead sons and that their country might find "dignity, greatness, and peace again."
This episodic story reflects on how major events impact both an upper-class and a working-class family. The past glories of the English are now challenged by violent changes in the world, indicating something is wrong with a society that blunders into such wars.