Based on Betty Smith's novel, a poor family struggles to keep the girl in school despite an alcoholic father everybody likes.
On Saturday while the kids Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner) and Neeley Nolan (Ted Donaldson) play in the street, Katie Nolan (Dorothy McGuire) scrubs the stairs. Mr. Barker (Grady Halton) collects the weekly insurance premium. The kids buy food, and Francie gets books from the library. Johnny Nolan (James Dunn) comes home in a happy mood and talks with Francine. He tells Katie that he has a job at a wedding. During dinner Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) comes in and says she is married again. Katie tells her that she is worried the kids will be dreamers like Johnny. Sissy has Francie put on skates, and a woman calls the cop McShane (Lloyd Nolan). Katie says no harm was done, and McShane agrees. Katie asks her sister Sissy to stay away. Francie reads Shakespeare aloud. Katie's mother says Katie has forgotten Sissy. Johnny comes home singing with food and tells of the wedding. Katie asks him if she has become hard. He promises to stop drinking, but she says he is kidding himself.
Johnny is drunk, and McShane tells Francie he will take him home. Katie tells McShane they don't need any help. Francie goes for a walk with Johnny and hopes she could go to a better school. Johnny says they would have to move or pretend to. Katie says it is dishonest, but Johnny is determined. The family moves to a higher floor to save money, and Katie gets a baby basket. Barker tells Katie that Sissy is expecting a baby, and Katie says she can visit. A piano is left there, and Johnny plays it and sings. At the new school Francie ask for a pie for a poor family, and her teacher says she has imagination.
In the snow Francie and Neeley catch a Christmas tree and take it home. McShane helps. Sissy and her husband Steve (John Alexander) are there. Presents are given. Katie tells Johnny that they are having a baby. She says Francie will have to work, but Johnny wants her to stay in school. Francie tells him that she wants to be a writer. Johnny tells her not to be afraid. He goes out for a walk in the snow.
A week later Katie is looking for Johnny. McShane tells her that he got sick looking for work and died. At the funeral Katie realizes how many friends he had. Francie cries and prays to have a son like Johnny. McGarrity (James Gleason) brings Katie $5 and offers Francie and Neeley a job on Saturdays, saying Johnny was a good man. At their job Sissy shows Francie a letter from her previous husband. Francie reads it and says he divorced her. Sissy has her baby in a hospital, and Katie tells Francie she will have to help her have her baby at home. Katie sends Neeley to get her mother and Sissy. Katie asks Francie to read a composition she wrote, and she reads about Johnny. Katie regrets that she was so hard. Sissy comes in, and Katie's mother tells Francie that the baby girl is okay. At her graduation Francie gets flowers from Johnny that Sissy bought. Francie meets a boy, who asks her out. They find McShane babysitting with Steve. McShane says he lost his wife and wants to keep company with Katie; Francie approves.
This realistic drama explores from the vantage point
of a young girl the personal values that can be found in emotional
happiness as compared to the hard work of being responsible. Johnny
was happy and made others happy but was unable to sustain it,
while Katie took a harder road that opened up a brighter future.