A talented little girl helps her thieving grandfather by almost being adopted for money, and then she stars in a play.
In 1850 New York Dimples Appleby (Shirley Temple) sings "Hey, What Did the Bluejay Say?" and tap dances. Her grandfather, Professor Appleby (Frank Morgan), passes the hat and is accused of picking a pocket. Betty Loring (Delma Byron) suggests to Allen Drew (Robert Kent) that Dimples sing at their wedding reception. In the home of Mrs. Caroline Drew (Helen Westley) Dimples sings "He Was a Dandy" and tap dances, though Jasper Loring (Berton Churchill) complains of "street urchins." The house is robbed, and all flee; but Dimples is caught. Mrs. Drew gives her cake. The Professor tosses the furs in the garden and cries, "Thief!" He is thanked and takes a clock. At his poor home he puts his black servant Cicero (Stepin Fetchit) out for the night.
Dimples takes the clock back to Mrs. Drew and says she stole it. Allen tells Dimples to go to into theater. Betty breaks her engagement to Allen because of an actress. Mrs. Drew also objects and asks Allen to leave. Mrs. Drew takes Dimples to the Professor and asks him to let Dimples live with her, offering him $5,000. Dimples asks him not to sell her and sings "Picture You Without Me." Allen is putting on a play and kisses Cleo Marsh (Astrid Allwyn). The Professor and Dimples come in. Allen has a part for Dimples and hires the Professor as an assistant. Dimples plays Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin and sings "Get On Board." Allen gives the Professor $800 to handle the production; but he is conned into buying a watch for $800.
Creditors ask for their money, and the Professor tells Allen he lost it. Cleo tells Allen it changes everything. The costumer Hawkins threatens the Professor with jail. Dimples goes to Mrs. Drew for $5,000 and says good-bye to the Professor. Dimples finds Mrs. Drew asleep after dinner and is bored. The Professor calls for the $5,000. Dimples hugs him and cries. He gives back the money to take Dimples home; but he sells Mrs. Drew the watch for $1,000. Mrs. Drew shows the watch to Jasper, who says it's a fake. Betsy comes to the play against her father's orders. Mrs. Drew and Jasper go to arrest the Professor. He puts on black make-up to escape the police, goes on as Uncle Tom, and is arrested when Uncle Tom enters. Dimples won't finish the play until the Professor persuades her, and Allen has Mrs. Drew and Jasper sit down to see Dimples' dying scene. Moved, Mrs. Drew tells the police to let the Professor go. The company and Dimples sing "Dixie-Anna."
The wisdom of young Dimples contrasts to the foolishness of her grandfather, showing that maturity is not always a question of age. Allen learns which woman loves him, and a powerful drama moves Mrs. Drew and Jasper to compassion.