Based on a novel by Laura E. Richards, a lighthouse keeper takes care of an orphan until he loses his job.
At the Cape Tempest Lighthouse Star (Shirley Temple) wakes up and sings "Early Bird," dancing as she gets dressed. Captain January (Guy Kibbee) tells Star that her mother drowned. Star goes to town, sings "At the Codfish Ball" and dances with Paul (Buddy Ebsen). The new truant officer Agatha Morgan (Sara Haden) tells Star she is coming to see January. Captain Nazro (Slim Summerville) brings Star a crane that dances, and he stays to inspect the lighthouse. January gives Star a doll and a birthday cake. January and Nazro show their tattoos. Morgan comes in and tells January that Star must go to school by law. Nazro and January say that Star can read, but she must take an examination. January claims Star is eight instead of six. To buy a dress for Star Nazro gets January to borrow $50 from widow Eliza Croft (Jane Darwell). January asks Star her multiplication tables. Nazro brings the exam questions, but they are for high school. Star gives creative answers. Paul asks teacher Mary (June Lang) to help Star; but she says she can't favor Star, though she wants Paul to favor her.
January and Nazro take Star to the exam and look in the window. Star and Morgan's nephew Cyril (Jerry Tucker) take the test. Star makes up a better story than Cyril. Mary decides that Cyril should not skip a grade and admits Star into the third grade. Morgan is angry, but January and Nazro rejoice and celebrate with cider. Star tells Eliza Croft she doesn't want two ladies of the house. Nazro gets a telegram that the lighthouse keeper is no longer needed after that month. Nazro writes to Mason, a possible relative of Star. The automatic equipment arrives, and January realizes his job is ending. At bedtime Star sings "The Right Somebody to Love" to January. In a fantasy Star cares for January as a baby. Nazro asks Mary and Paul to send a telegram to the Masons in Boston. January quarrels with Nazro. Men install the new light. Star is glad they are going to live with Eliza Croft.
Nazro warns January that Morgan is coming with an order; so January and Star go out in Nazro's boat with Paul. Nazro brings them supplies; but they are seen by a boat with Morgan and the sheriff. Morgan insists the sheriff take Star, as January hits the sheriff, and Star cries. Mary tells Paul and them that the Masons have arrived. John Mason (George Irving) assures the sheriff they will take Star to the hearing. Star plays with many toys, but she prefers her doll. In the final scene Mr. Mason takes Shirley to a ship in which January is captain, Nazro is first mate, Paul is crew, and Eliza Croft is cook.
Shirley Temple's usual charm and talent carry this story of a cheerful girl everyone except the truant officer loves. The audience joins in wanting the orphan girl to have the best care but not a cold institution.