Adapted from the novel by Einar Thorvaldson based on the life of Ivar Kreuger, a clever manipulator uses loans and government deals to monopolize the match business until his fraud is exposed.
Chicago Cub ballpark janitor Paul Kroll (Warren William) gets a janitor fired and splits his pay. Then he betrays his partner with Babe (Glenda Farrell) to get money to go to Sweden. He gets a match business to merge and modernize with a personal note. Erik Borg (Hardie Albright) knows his note is no good, but Paul offers Erik a job. Soon Paul is borrowing ten times as much to buy timber and gains a match monopoly in Sweden. He orders men to create the superstition that three lights on a match are unlucky. In Warsaw Paul cajoles Sonia with promises to get information that the Poland government needs money. He gets a monopoly in Poland by offering a $500,000 loan.
Erik tells Paul how many countries he has locked up. Ilse (Claire Dodd) in Germany calls. The Rothschilds are pulling out, but Paul holds up Germany with $125 million, gaining a monopoly there too. Ilse doesn't want Paul to go to Paris. When he sees actress Marta Molnar (Lili Damita), he says he can call. He sends jewelry to Marta and invites her to dine; but she keeps him waiting and sends the jewelry back. Paul finds Marta in Salzburg and joins her on a hike in the rain. Marta stays in her room listening to records of violinist Trino. Paul hires Trino to cancel his tour and play for her. Erik has a loan crisis; but Paul calls asking only for the best periwinkles for Marta.
Paul flies to Stockholm, and Erik urges him to give it all up; but Paul still has debts even though he is most powerful. Nyberg tells Paul of a secret invention. They go to the inventor of an everlasting match. Paul promises to wreck the Kroll company and get a patent; but he puts the man in an insane asylum. Meanwhile Marta sailed off to Hollywood.
After the stock market crashes, Paul announces dividends in order to keep his loans secure; but the bankers refuse to renew them. Paul asks for thirty days. Erik tells Paul he has immense assets but cannot borrow. Paul goes to Scarlatti and buys forged Italian treasury certificates. Then he makes Scarlatti fall out of a speedboat. Paul sails for New York, gets a $40 million loan, and meets Marta. He wants to leave business and marry her; but she says she loves Trino. In Paris Paul learns the Italian forgeries were discovered. He recalls his lies and crimes; then he shoots himself.
Ivar Kreuger did use loans to control most of the match business and left behind bankrupt companies when he shot himself in 1932.