An arrogant fisherman tries to boss his union and is thrown out; his bride gets in trouble with the law trying to help him.
On the waterfront tuna fishers gather to discuss striking. While having breakfast Dutch Miller (Spencer Tracy) quarrels with Hattie (Jean Harlow). Owner Nick (Joseph Calleia) plans to bring in cheap labor. Union leader Brains (J. Farrell MacDonald) tells Dutch they can't afford to strike and asks him to speak. Dutch speaks against striking and starts a fight, almost getting arrested. Men go to work, and Dutch tells reporters how he stopped the strike. Hattie throws a mackerel at Dutch, knocking him into the water. Hattie works at the cannery, and Nick gives her a fur. On July 4th she goes out with Nick. Dutch shoots craps with Nick and dances with Hattie. Nick and Dutch quarrel, and Dutch starts a fight. Hattie's brother Jimmy (Mickey Rooney) explodes firecrackers. Dutch kisses Hattie. When she says Nick wants to marry her, Dutch asks her. He doesn't want kids, and she slaps him. At their wedding Dutch quarrels with her sister Lil (Una Merkel) and her father.
Dutch shows Hattie an apartment nicely furnished on the installment plan. Dutch leads a strike; but after ten weeks scabs bring in the tuna. Nick will talk with Brains but not with Dutch. At a union meeting Dutch is replaced by Brains. Dutch sees his furniture being taken away and argues with Hattie's relatives again. Brains tells Dutch that he can stay in the union; but Dutch slaps him. Brains tells Dutch he is a conceited fool. Dutch leaves Hattie even though she is willing to work. Hattie goes out with Nick, who asks his lawyer to get a divorce for Hattie. She signs the paper but says she is not marrying Nick. Lou tells Hattie that Dutch is sick in a hobo camp. She finds Dutch; but he gets on a train. She leaves money for him and is arrested for stealing it from Nick.
Hattie has a baby in prison and gives it to Lil. Dutch cannot get help from Nick, and the union votes against taking him back. Dutch visits Hattie and has a plan to escape. She hates the idea and ends the visit; but she mentions the drain-pipe to others. Dutch calls on Brains and pleads for a job. Hattie escapes in the rain with two others, and one of them is shot. Dutch works on a tanker as a night watchman. Jimmy sneaks on board to fish. Three men from the jungles show Dutch a bomb. Jimmy goes for help as Dutch fights them, saving the ship. Brains keeps the news of Hattie's escape from Dutch. Police search Lil's house; then Hattie sneaks in, sending Jimmy to Dutch. At a party for Dutch the police question him about Hattie. Nick thanks him with $100, and Brains gives Dutch a union card. Dutch goes to Hattie and admits he is not a big-shot, just the best tuna fisherman. She decides to stop running, and he sees his son. Lil persuades the police not to arrest Hattie until morning.
In this melodrama Dutch learns that his quarrelsome and arrogant behavior is destructive. Unfortunately Hattie will have to suffer for her misguided attempts to help and join her wayward husband.