Before keeling over, gunshot victim Monte Beragon gasps the name Mildred. His wife Mildred fails to drown herself but succeeds in picking up her old friend Wally. She takes him home and slips out, leaving him trapped with Monte's dead body. Wally escapes from the house and runs straight into the cops. Wally, Mildred, her friend Ida and Mildred's first husband Bert are brought to the police station. Bert is charged with Monte's murder because the murder weapon belonged to him. A detective questions Mildred about Bert.
Flashback to the past:
Mildred and Bert fight over his being out of work after his ex-partner Wally squeezed him out of their business. Bert's also mad at Mildred for spoiling their daughters Veda and Kay with dance and music lessons, so Mildred kicks him out. Kay's upset but Veda cares more about the new dress mum bought her. Mildred also kicks Wally out after he makes a pass. Veda suggests Mildred marry Wally because she wants to move to a nicer house but Mildred is appalled.
To support the kids, Mildred waits tables with her new friend Ida. Veda is scornful when she finds out Mildred is a waitress. Veda blames Mildred's humble origins for driving away Bert. Eventually Mildred opens her own restaurant with business partners Wally and Monte Beragon. On Wally's advice, Mildred starts divorce proceedings against Bert to protect her new business. She also starts dating Monte, a wastrel from old but rapidly dwindling money.
Mildred's younger daughter Kay contracts pneumonia and dies. Bert agrees to the divorce. Mildred's restaurant is a big success and she starts a chain to support Veda's and Monte's ever-expensive tastes. Mildred breaks up with Monte so he won't be a bad influence on Veda. Too late. Veda has secretly married a young man from a wealthy family, the Forresters, who demand the marriage be annulled. Veda pretends to be pregnant and wins a big payoff from the Forresters. She's dying to get away from Mildred. When Mildred learns the truth, she destroys Veda's check and kicks the girl out.
Veda gets a job working as a singer in Wally's sleazy bar. Mildred wants Veda back but Veda refuses to come home until Mildred can provide her with Monte's lifestyle. Mildred gives Monte a share of her business in exchange for marrying him and Veda returns to her new home.
Mildred goes broke trying to support Monty and Vida. She loses control of her business when Monte secretly sells his third and Wally goes along with him. After Wally reveals Monte's dealings behind her back, Mildred goes after Monte with a gun and kills him.
The cops bring Veda to the police station after picking her up at the airport. Mildred breaks down and reveals the truth.
Flashback to the past:
Mildred walks in on Monte and Veda together, and I mean together. How Oedipal can you get? Shocked that Veda's having an affair with stepdad Monte, Mildred drops her gun and runs away. Monte tells Veda he won't marry her. Veda kills him and asks Mildred for money to run away.
The cops charge Veda with Monte's murder. Mildred and Bert meet and walk out together into the sun.