A young law student, Armand (Rudolph Valentino) becomes smitten with a courtesan, Marguerite (Alla Nazimova). Marguerite is constantly surrounded by suitors, whom she entertains at her lavish apartment. She also has consumption and is frequently beset by bouts of illness.
Armand sees Marguerite at the opera and, later, pursues her when he attends one of her private parties. She rejects his advances at first, but eventually returns his affection.
The two live happily together until Armand’s father, seeking to protect his family’s reputation, convinces Marguerite to end the relationship. She finally relents and runs away to a wealthy client, leaving a note for Armand.
When Armand finds the note he is shattered. The sorrow eventually turns to rage, and he decides to plunge into Parisian nightlife, associating himself with Olympe, another courtesan. When he sees Marguerite at a casino, he publicly denounces her.
Marguerite gives up her life as a courtesan and quickly finds herself in massive debt. Her illness also takes a heavy toll. Eventually, as she lies dying in bed, her furniture and belongings are repossessed. She persuades the men taking her belongings to allow her to keep her most precious possession: a book – Manon Lescaut – Armand gave to her.
Marguerite dies lying in bed in her apartment holding the book Armand gave her, wishing to sleep where she is happy dreaming about Armand. Marguerite’s maid Nanine, and her newlywed friends Gaston and Nichette are at her bedside as she dies. Unlike the original novel, the film does not depict Armand and Marguerite ever seeing each other again after the casino scene and offers no suggestion that Armand ever learned of Marguerite’s sacrifice and true feelings for him.
By Ray C. Smallwood (YouTube) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons