Based on the novel and play of Alexandre Dumas, an ill woman of gaiety finds romance but sacrifices it for a higher love.
In 1847 Paris at the theater Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews) tries to introduce Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) to the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell); but selfish Olympe (Lenore Ulric) won't give up her box. Instead Marguerite meets Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), who says he loves her. The Baron visits ailing Marguerite and gives her money to buy horses so that she can care for the horseman. The Baron kisses her. Six months later Marguerite sees Armand, and he gives back her handkerchief. She invites Armand to her birthday party. Only Armand objects that she is killing herself. Marguerite advises him to get married. Armand kisses her; she tells him to come back later and gives him a key. The guests leave with the food. Marguerite orders supper for two; but the Baron comes in, and Armand's key does not work. Armand tells his father (Lionel Barrymore) that he wants to travel, and Marguerite gets a letter that Armand is going away. She goes to him, and Armand says he will love her all her life. Armand asks Marguerite to go to the country so he can care for her. She asks him not to be jealous. Prudence warns Marguerite that she can't leave Paris owing money. Marguerite asks the Baron to loan her 40,000 francs; but he says no unless she goes to Russia with him. The Baron is jealous but gives her the money and slaps her.
Armand carries Marguerite into a country house. She likes fresh milk and walks with him. They learn that the chateau nearby belongs to the Baron. Jealous Armand learns that Marguerite is selling her jewelry. They host the wedding of Armand's sister. Armand passed up a diplomatic post. Marguerite tells Armand never to leave her. Armand asks her to marry. While Armand is in town, his father arrives and tells Marguerite that she is ruining his son. He wants her to end it; but she loves Armand. Duval says that Armand's career cannot advance with her and asks her to make a sacrifice. Marguerite cries and sends a letter to the Baron. When Armand comes back with good news that he controls his money, she quarrels and is distant. Armand learns that she is leaving to go to the Baron.
In Paris Prudence tells Armand that the Baron paid Marguerite's debts. Marguerite enters with the Baron, who insists she stay. The Baron and Armand play cards, and Armand wins. Marguerite asks Armand to leave, and he blames her for choosing wealth over his love. He asks her to go with him. Marguerite says she promised not to see him, and Armand assumes it was to the Baron. Armand throws his money at her and slaps the Baron. In the duel Armand wounds the Baron and flees without reading Marguerite's letter.
Six months later Armand returns to Paris and learns that Marguerite is ill. Olympe has been buying her jewelry, because she won't see the Baron. Gaston (Rex O'Malley) visits Marguerite and brings camellias. Prudence barges in, asks for money, and says Armand is in Paris. Marguerite asks Gaston to send for a priest. Nanine (Jessie Ralph) helps Marguerite out of bed to receive Armand, who holds her and says he couldn't forget her. Marguerite says she will live in his heart and dies.
This grandly romantic drama ironically shows how fleeting and ephemeral romance can be amid other pressures and concerns of life. Sometimes loving what is best for the beloved means denying both partners those temporary pleasures.