Directed by George Cukor, this Noel Langley-Robert Morley play received a screenplay treatment from Donald Ogden Stewart. Morley, who'd played the lead role in the British stage production, was replaced by Spencer Tracy (who plays a "bad guy" for a change, very credibly I might add) in this film adaptation of the drama. Deborah Kerr (who received the first of her six unrewarded Best Actress Oscar nominations for her performance), Ian Hunter (who'd also been in the play), Mervyn Johns, and Leueen MacGrath (among others) round out the cast.
Told in flashback by Tracy's character Arnold Boult, a man who from the very first insists on nothing but the best for his only son Edward (the title character is never seen in the film), despite pleas from his wife Evelyn (Kerr) and "warnings" from their family doctor and friend Larry Woodhope (Hunter), the story begins in 1919 London and progresses until (the film's) present day, 1949. A typical, and not particularly engaging, tale of spoiling one's child to excess, creating a "monster" with no sense of responsibility or respect for what's required and expected of young men (e.g. with regards to appropriate behavior).
In the various flashbacks (the years are marked by title cards and/or numbered birthday cakes), we see that Arnold will do anything to ensure that the world is his son Edward's oyster. At first, as a struggling & financially strapped businessman who's partnered with Harry Sempkin (Johns), a man just released from prison, he commits arson after increasing the insurance payoff on his furniture business in order to afford an operation (by a specialist in Switzerland) for his son, required to keep the six year old from having a permanent limp. Later, as a successful financier, Arnold bullies the headmaster (Felix Aylmer) at Edward's prestigious boarding school to keep 12 year old Edward from being expelled. Colin Gordon plays a frustrated professor. When Edward is sixteen, and about to travel abroad with his mother, we see Arnold arranging to provide an extra 50 pounds allowance for his son, outmaneuvering his wife Evelyn, who's finally questioning Edward's judgment in the presence of Dr. Woodhope, who's not only held a candle for her all these years but had long since given up on the (character of the) other two men in her life.
Sempkin, who has just been released from prison where he'd been implicated in some business malfeasance that he (rightly) suspects was Arnold's (CYA) doing, arrives to ask for a job. Arnold finesses his way out of actually helping his former business partner, leaving Sempkin feeling hopeless to the point that he commits suicide by jumping off the roof of Boult's building. With help from his ambitious secretary Eileen Perrin (MacGrath), Arnold is able to deflect the policeman's (Clement McCallum) suspicions, denying that he'd even met with Sempkin. Now partners in crime, Arnold and Eileen begin an affair which lasts for a year before they're caught by a private detective (Ernest Jay) working for Evelyn. Arnold then catches up with Evelyn abroad, where she'd planned on leaving him before (the unseen) Edward conspires with his father to keep her there. In the scene which perhaps earned Kerr her nomination, Tracy as Arnold now bullies her Evelyn into remaining in the marriage for Edward's sake. Realizing that she really has no other choice, she stays but becomes increasingly infirm over the years, drinking for solace, until her eventual death in 1945.
Before Evelyn's death though, Arnold is shown to use Woodhope in the matter of Betty Foxley (Tilsa Page), whom Edward had gotten pregnant despite the fact that he'd been engaged to Phyllis Mayden (Harriette Johns). However, before Woodhope leaves "the conference" with Betty, he gives her sage advice about how to deal with Arnold, whose new secretary (for the three years since Eileen killed herself with pills) is played by James Donald. In 1941, Woodhope calls on the Boults again, shortly after Edward had accidentally killed himself while hot- dogging in his World War II bomber, taking his crew to their untimely deaths with him. Evelyn is now visibly aged and a drunkard. After she dies, Arnold seeks out Woodhope again in hopes of finding his grandchild, by Betty, but of course is denied any assistance by the doctor, who knows that Boult's business corruption is catching up with him. In fact, the time between this meeting in 1946 and the film's opening & closing monologues (in 1949) by Arnold (e.g. Tracy talking directly to the camera) were ostensibly filled with 3 years of jail time for Boult, due to the arsonist's 1924 crime!