Based on the novel by Clyde Brion Davis, a wild sailor rousts a librarian out of her intellectual shell for a fast romance, marriage, and divorce before sailing again; but she draws him back.
Bosun Harry Patterson (Clark Gable) says goodbye to Maria (Lina Romay) and makes sure that his drunk friend Mudgin (Thomas Mitchell) makes it back on board their merchant marine ship. Harry takes religious young Ramon on board and assures his great grandfather (Philip Merivale) that he will take care of him. Harry's card game is interrupted by a raid, and they spend six days on a life raft. Ramon dies, and Mudgin promises God that if they are saved, he will give up wild women, hard liquor, and using a knife in fights. He also says he will give all his money to the Church. Soon they are rescued and are taken to San Francisco.
Mudgin gets his $2500 in savings from the bank and asks Harry to accompany him to a church, but Harry and the crew say they have to toast one for the lost ship. Mudgin gets drunk again and has a woman. A fight breaks out, and he throws his knife away; but he sees it sticking in a man's arm. Harry says he has lost his soul and asks Harry to help him find it. Instead of a church, Harry sees proverbs carved on an impressive library building and takes him in there. They talk to the librarian Emily (Greer Garson), who tries to keep them from being so loud and disturbing others. She recommends some books on the soul and psychiatry, but in a footnote they read that many believe the soul does not exist. Helen (Joan Blondell) arrives to go home with Emily, and Harry is immediately attracted to her vivacity. Harry persuades them to go out with him, and suddenly Emily comes alive and starts dancing and brawling with the sailors. Harry takes them home in a cab.
Harry comes back the next morning, and he takes Emily and Helen to Emily's house in the country. Emily and Harry walk to a market and steal some chickens from a neighbor. Suddenly Harry and Emily realize that they really like each other. Harry takes Emily to Reno, and they get married. After two days of fun they come back and tell Helen, who offers to move out of the apartment. Harry says he is going back to sea in two days and says Helen can stay. Emily tells Harry that she wants a divorce, and he says okay. The next day Emily goes to her country house and finds Harry there painting it. They argue about that, and he leaves.
Mudgin is refusing to go to sea without his soul and is losing his book, but Harry tells the committee that Mudgin will ship out with him. On the ship Mudgin tells Harry that Emily is a queen and implies he will not be able to stop thinking about her. Harry reacts against Mudgin and has a lonely voyage. Mary is waiting for him, but she becomes jealous of Emily and leaves. Mudgin gets drunk while on watch because he saw Emily. They take Mudgin on deck so that he can see the stars, and his soul returns to him just before he dies.
Harry returns to the apartment, and Helen takes him to the house where Emily is having his baby, who does not breathe until Harry makes an earnest prayer. They name the boy after Mudgin.
A risky and poetic vitality pervades this war-time when
individuals feel lost and hunger to know they are alive.