The film opens with a foreword:
There are important fragments of life that have been avoided by the motion picture because Thought is concerned and not the Body. A thought can create and destroy nations—and it is all the more powerful because it is born of suffering, lives in silence, and dies when it has done its work. Our aim has been to photograph a thought—A thought that guides humans who crawl close to the earth—whose lives are simple—who begin nowhere and end nowhere.
The “humans who crawl close to the earth” are introduced one after another. The Boy is a homeless, unemployed youth who fancies The Girl. He is a failure, the intertitles explain, because he believes in failure. According to The Boy, there are two types of people in the world—the poor, helpless “children of the mud” and the rich, successful “children of the sun” (note: drawn from a 1905 play by the same name by Russian playwright Maxim Gorky)—and he places himself somewhere in the middle. The Boy and The Girl live near a harbor and struggle to find food; eventually, they have to leave for the city: not only The Boy is unable to find a job, but also The Brute has been harassing The Girl, and The Boy is afraid of a direct confrontation. They leave, taking with them The Child, an orphan who lost his parents to an accident and was also a victim of The Brute.
In the city The Girl catches the attention of The Gentleman. He offers the three protagonists lodgings and promises to find a job for The Boy. His real plan is, however, to not help The Boy and wait until The Girl has no other choice but to offer herself to him in exchange for money. The Boy fails in his job search, but The Girl is reluctant to become a prostitute; at some point, The Gentleman decides to take the whole company to the country to “let romance do a little work.” He does that, but when he tries to seduce The Girl, The Boy finally finds courage to stand up for her. The Boy beats The Gentleman up and leaves together with The Girl and The Child. The intertitles proclaim that now that The Boy is no longer afraid and believes in himself, he belongs to the children of the sun:
It isn’t conditions, nor is it environment—our faith controls our lives!
The film ends with The Boy, The Girl and The Child walking towards the sunset.
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Writer: Josef von Sternberg
Stars: George K. Arthur, Georgia Hale, Bruce Guerin