Adapted from Edna Ferber's novel, an ambitious lumber man gives up a beauty to marry his partner's daughter; but later he woos the daughter of the beauty and his best friend in competition with his own son.
In 1884 Wisconsin lumber companies take trees without replacing them. Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold) uses his fists to make his workers obey and provides free liquor after the timber has been brought to the mill. Hewitt gives Barney a bonus, and Barney wants a partnership; but Hewitt has a daughter. At a saloon Barney wins $500 in a shell game and meets singer Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer), offering to pay her rail fare home. Barney and his friend Swan Bostrom (Walter Brennan) have to fight to leave with Lotta. Barney buys clothes for Lotta and kisses her. When he gets a telegram from Hewitt, Barney tells Swan he still plans to marry Emma Louise Hewitt. Barney asks Swan to tell Lotta, who cries in Swan's arms. Lotta marries Swan.
In 1907 Barney is married to Emma Louise (Mary Nash). His daughter Evvie Glasgow (Andrea Leeds) urges him to visit Swan. Barney's son Richard Glasgow (Joel McCrea) favors replanting trees; his father rejects his idea for paper cups. Swan's wife Lotta has died, but Barney meets Swan's daughter Lotta Bostrom (Frances Farmer) and dotes on her. She sings "Aura Lee" like her mother. Barney sings in order to kiss her. He takes Swan, Karie (Mady Christians), and Lotta to Chicago in his private rail car and buys them fine clothes. Barney offers Swan a job and Lotta an education. Karie suspects that Barney wants Lotta. At the office Richard meets Lotta and calls on her to tell her not to make a fool of his father. He spills the candy she is cooking and steps in it. Then he tells her about paper-making history. Swan tells Barney his job is not work. Barney tells Richard not to go to see Lotta and tries to transfer him to New York; but Richard refuses to go.
Evvie tells Barney she broke her engagement but likes Tony from the poor section. Barney talks to Tony Schwerke (Frank Shields), approving his paper cups. At Swan's house Richard lectures on replanting. Barney comes in, and Richard leaves. Lotta tells Barney she passed her exams. He wants to set her up in Chicago so he can visit her. At a company party Lotta goes off with Richard while Barney looks for her. Lotta says her family is going back to Iron Ridge; but Richard asks her to marry. As they kiss, Barney comes in. He slaps Richard, who struggles with him, as Lotta warns Barney is an old man. Emma Louise calls Barney, who says he threw Richard out. Then he calls the guests to "come and get it."
Barney's reckless ambition leaves fewer trees for future generations; but his attempt to take the beauty he lost from his son fails and shows his folly.