Based on Ferenc Molnar’s novel, The Paul Street Boys, and directed by Frank Borsage, a club of young boys challenge a gang of older boys to protect the vacant lot where they play.
Scenes of the Great War show the suffering. A crippled man says they made him fight in the war. A schoolteacher tells boys that patriotism is important, and their solution depends on their military strength. The bell rings, and the boys start to leave. The teacher calls the names of six boys to stay after class. He makes Boka (Jimmy Butler) give him the note they were passing. The teacher reads the note aloud about a meeting to elect a president. He asks the name of the club. Boka says they formed the Paul Street Boys to protect their neighborhood playground. He says the only remaining vacant lot in the neighborhood is their only place to play. They plan to protect it with their lives. The teacher asks, “From what?” They say another gang has threatened war against them. The teacher says he will report this. The boys say that he taught them there is nothing more important than war. He says that is different. He declares the club disbanded and says he will stop the “silly business.” He tells them to go home and walks out.
In the empty lot the boys are playing. Boka has a trumpet blown to gather the boys. He calls Nemecsek (George P. Breakston) to attention. Nemecsek complains to Captain Boka that everyone in the club is an officer except him. Boka says he is the smallest, and they must have at least one private. Nemecsek says that he is nearly as tall as Csele (Beaudine Anderson). Boka says that Csele can play the bugle; but Nemecsek shows that he can blow calls, and he whistles. Nemecsek wants to wear a military cap too. Boka says no, and Nemecsek feels sorry for himself. Boka and Gereb (Jackie Searl) accuse him of crying, and Boka orders Gereb to put his name in the black book for crying.
An adult reads the ballots and says that Boka got 22 votes and Gereb only two. Boka calls them to attention and says they must do something about those Red Shirts even if it means war.
Two boys run away from the Red Shirts, but two others playing with marbles persuade Nemecsek to stay. The older boys walk up to them, and one orders them to stand and deliver. Feri Ats (Frankie Darro) and two others take their marbles and walk around a corner where they see Boka and Gereb, who walk around them off the sidewalk. Nemecsek says they took their marbles and says Boka would not have let it happen. Gereb says that Boka is afraid. Boka says it is an impossible situation.
Nemecsek and another boy are carrying a long ladder. Gereb opens a gate, and Feri Ats comes out. A sign declares the gate must not be opened and is signed by Boka. Gereb orders Nemecsek to put the ladder down and says he can eat his lunch now. Nemecsek gets his sandwich and starts eating by a dog and the watchman (Christian Rub). The dog barks by a lumber pile, and Nemecsek climbs up on top of the pile. On top Feri Ats is taking their flag and tells him not to be afraid. Feri Ats takes the flag and tells his club members that he took their flag from the highest fort. The Paul Street Boys learn what happened, and Boka orders Nemecsek’s name put in the black book for leaving the gate open. Nemecsek denies it and says Feri Ats took their flag away. Boka orders the bugler to call assembly, and the boys line up. Boka says they must get their flag back tonight from the Botanical Gardens where the Red Shirts meet every night. He calls for volunteers, and all the boys step forward. Boka says he can only take two, and Nemecsek insists that he take him. Boka says they will bring back the flag, dead or alive.
That night the three boys go to the garden and look through the iron gate. Nemecsek rings the bell, and they hide. Boka says they can climb over. They give Nemecsek a boost and he helps the other two get over the wall. Some of the Red Shirts are carrying spears, and two guard a bridge. Feri Ats tells his men that they have to find a new place to meet because the watchman may lose his job. Boka and the other two hide and whisper. Nemecsek falls in the stream, and the others pull him out. Boka leads them into a rowboat, but Nemecsek falls in the water again. Boka helps him into the boat and reprimands him. Boka rows the boat. They get out on land, and Boka orders Csonakos (Donald Haines) to guard the boat. Csonakos eats another banana. Boka and Nemecsek sneak up on the Red Shirts meeting. They see Gereb brought before Feri Ats. Gereb tells them how they can get into the fort. Feri Ats says it will be regular war, and he tells Gereb to see that the gates are not bolted. Feri Ats tells his men to prepare for the battle, and they march off. Boka tells Nemecsek they will let them know they were there. Boka finds a note and crosses out words about getting their flag. They leave, and the Red Shirts find the note and that they were there. Feri Ats orders them to go after them. The three boys are in the row boat and hide under a bridge. Gereb crosses the bridge. They row on, and others see them. The three boys go into a conservatory house of glass. Boka and Csonakos hide in a tool shed, and Boka tells Nemecsek to hide in the pool. Red Shirts come in looking for them. Nemecsek is shivering in the water and sees a frog. The Red Shirts leave. The three boys run home during a rainstorm.
In his father’s store Nemecsek sneezes, and his father (Ralph Morgan) tells him not to go out to deliver a suit. Nemecsek says he wants to wear a cap. He says he distinguished himself on a dangerous mission. His father says he may come back with a military cap. His mother (Lois Wilson) will not let Nemecsek go out because of his cold. She goes out to get him some soup. Nemecsek leaves too.
Feri Ats asks for a report about the Paul Street Boys. Gereb says they may be able to get the place peacefully. He says he bribed the watchman to drive them off the lot. Feri Ats gets angry and says they will not use bribery. He calls Gereb a coward, who disagrees because of his spying. He says they are afraid of him. They hear a sneeze, and Nemecsek falls from a tree. Gereb identifies him, and Nemecsek says he stole the flag. He is defiant even though he is alone against all of them. Feri Ats offers to shake his hand and asks if he wants to join the Red Shirts. Nemecsek says no. Feri Ats takes the flag from Nemecsek and orders the others to give him a dunking in the stream. Gereb watches and laughs at him, calling him a frog. Feri Ats tells them that is enough. Gereb asks Nemecsek how he feels now. Nemecsek feels superior to Gereb and says he is not afraid. He says the Paul Street Boys will be waiting for them. He cries, and Feri Ats tells him to go home. They salute him as he goes.
Boka has made a proclamation that the Paul Street Boys must prepare for the attack by the Red Shirts. He speaks to his men and says their enemy is bigger and stronger, and they must out-think them. He asks if anyone does not want to get into the war, and no one steps forward. He tells them to forget Gereb. He shows them a map and explains how they will defend their lot. He appoints Nemecsek his adjutant as a reward for his heroism. Nemecsek asks if he can be an officer too, but Boka says that must wait until after the war. Gereb comes in the gate and tells Boka that he came back as a friend, not a spy. He offers their flag to Boka, but he says they will fight for it. Gereb asks to be forgiven. Boka says he has forgotten it, but he will not take him back. Nemecsek is coughing, and Boka says he should have stayed home.
A man knocks on the gate. Gereb’s father (Samuel S. Hinds) comes in and asks about his son. He asks Nemecsek if his son committed treachery, and he wants the truth. Nemecsek refuses to call Gereb a traitor. The father says he will send his boy over and leaves. Boka says Nemecsek is all right and walks with him.
Boka announces to his troops that Nemecsek is sick at home and has been replaced as adjutant. Gereb comes in the gate and salutes Boka. Gereb thanks them for lying to his father to protect them. Gereb says he told the Red Shirts that he is a Paul Street Boy. He promises to be loyal and says he will be a private and wants to fight in the battle. Boka says Nemecsek forgave him, and they all agree to take him back as a private.
A scout says the enemy is coming with a white flag. They open the gate, and three Red Shirts announce that they will be there at 3 o’clock. They want to visit the sick Nemecsek, and Boka tells them his address. They go out, and the gate is closed.
The three envoys visit Nemecsek at home. They say Feri Ats told them to give him the marbles back. They ask him to forgive them and say goodbye.
Csonakos and two others with a white flag go to Feri Ats on a mission. They hand the Red Shirts’ flag back to Feri Ats. He is to bring the flag to the war, and they will try to take it away from them. If they do, they win the war. Feri Ats agrees.
Nemecsek is in bed, and his mother cares for him. Boka comes to visit him, and Nemecsek tries to whistle. The doctor comes in and examines Nemecsek. He tells the mother he is all right, but he warns the father that Nemecsek is very low. The doctor leaves, and the father tells the mother that the doctor said he will be all right. On the street the doctor tells Feri Ats that Nemecsek is very sick. Boka tells Nemecsek he is a captain now, and he gives him a military cap. He shows him the black book, and he reads a resolution that corrects the previous note. Nemecsek closes his eyes, and Boka says he is asleep.
The Paul Street Boys prepare for the war by digging a trench. Gereb volunteers for the most dangerous spot, and Boka approves. Boka gives orders to his new adjutant. Csonakos demonstrates his devices for closing and bolting doors. Boka climbs up on the fort with his adjutant.
Nemecsek wakes up and tells he parents he wants to go out, but his father promises him a bugle and a uniform and makes him stay in bed. A gentleman comes in for his coat. Nemecsek hears the voice of Boka that they are in trouble. Nemecsek tells him to wait for him and tries to get out of bed. His father hears his whistle. Weak Nemecsek says he is a captain. His father is fitting the coat on the gentleman and hears the whistling. Nemecsek is dressed in his uniform and goes out the back door.
From the top of the fort Boka speaks to his men. They hear a bugle and say “They are coming!” They deploy to their defensive positions. The gates are opened, and Feri Ats leads his men and carries the flag. The bugle sounds the charge, and they begin fighting. Csonakos closes the doors, and some of the Red Shirts are captured inside. The watchman comments how they are fighting over an empty lot. A Red Shirt is fighting Gereb, and Csonakos jumps in.
When Nemecsek arrives, everyone stops fighting. He tries to attack Feri Ats but collapses on the ground. His fist is holding the flag, and Feri Ats lets go of it. The other boys are standing around them. His mother arrives and holds him, but he does not speak. She says he is cold and realizes he died. She carries him and is followed by the boys. When she is about to fall, Feri Ats and Boka support her.
In a ceremony taps is played, and the boys salute Nemecsek’s cap on top of a pole. The watchman says they are putting up an apartment house. A large machine is digging a hole.
This anti-war drama provides a parable of social conflict by showing boys fighting for their right to have a place to play. The sacrifice of one heroic boy wins the respect of both sides and miraculously stops them from fighting.