A Chicago gangster helps a singer with her career and marries her even though she likes a piano player better.
In Chicago during the 1920s men buy tickets to dance with women. Martin Snyder (James Cagney) comes in to collect money from the manager Orry, who learns Ruth Etting (Doris Day) kicked a customer and fires her. Martin limps into her dressing-room and offers to help her go on stage. He asks her to meet him at his car, and he gives her his card to get a job. She is leery, and he says she has no faith in human nature.
Ruth dances in a line but does not know the routine. Eddie Fulton (Claude Stroud) comes out singing. In the dressing-room Ruth tells Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) she is not a dancer but a singer. He says she needs coaching and special material, but she says she is broke. He offers to work with her in his apartment. Frobisher (Tom Tully) warns him that she belongs to the Gimp. Marty talks with Ruth, who says she wants to sing. Marty calls in Georgie (Harry Bellaver) and says they are leaving for Florida. She says she does not want to go. He calls her a “stupid broad,” and she quits and walks into the Ladies room.
During rehearsal piano-playing Johnny is summoned by Marty, who hires him to coach Ruth for $10 an hour. In an empty place Johnny thanks her for cutting him in. He plays piano, and she sings “It All Depends on You.” He says she is good, and she wants Marty to be her manager; but Johnny warns her. Johnny comes in and asks Ruth her excuse. She says she forgot. She wants to sing on stage, but he says she needs more lessons.
During the show Ruth sings the introduction of Eddie Fulton. Marty asks if she is happy, and she says it is quick. She suggests she could fill in for Fulton. He says she has nerve. Marty tries to persuade Frobisher to use her. Johnny asks to meet Ruth for coffee after the show. Marty tells her it is time to go on and shows her the door that says “Ruth Etting Chicago’s Sweetheart.” On stage Ruth sings “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)” and “Stay on the Right Side, Sister.” She finds bouquets in her dressing-room, and Marty says they have to celebrate. She says she is tired. He says she can’t brush him off this time. She says she will go, but he will never see her again. He says he got an important man to hear her. She says he has become important to her, but she is not stuck on him yet. He asks when. He says they will go out to eat instead. Marty sees Johnny and gives him some money.
On stage Ruth sings “Everybody Loves My Baby (but My Baby Don't Love Nobody but Me)” and “Mean to Me.” Georgie tells Marty he has to talk to him about the laundry. In her dressing-room Ruth introduces Bernard V. Loomis (Robert Keith) to Marty and says he wants to book her; but Marty puts him off and tells her that his place in New York is no good. Marty says he has plans for her. Marty tells Georgie he wants to put her on the radio. Georgie suggests they invite them to hear her sing.
Johnny visits Ruth in her apartment to rehearse. She is happy she has her own radio program, and he is conducting the orchestra. Johnny tells her that Loomis is the best agent in the business. He warns her about Marty again, and they argue. He kisses her, and he says they should tell him; but she says no. He leaves.
In the radio show Ruth sings “Sam, the Accordion Man.” The producer asks Marty if she is going to sign with them. Marty gets a call from Loomis, and Marty says they will make it. Marty tells Georgie he is going to New York. Marty invites the performers to a party and announces that Ruth is going to New York to be in the Ziegfeld Follies. Marty asks Johnny to go, but he says no. Johnny calls Marty a cheap crook who pushes people around. Marty says how he feels about her and says she is going with him.
Ruth rehearses for the Follies. Marty complains to the director it is lousy. Loomis protects Marty from Fred Taylor (Peter Leeds) and cautions him.
In the show Ruth sings “Shaking the Blues Away” and dances with a dozen men. Marty tries to go back stage and slugs Fred. Others restrain him. Later Marty tells her and Loomis he is pulling her out of the show. Loomis says there is a contract, and Ruth and Marty quarrel. She tells Marty she hates the way he acts. He says what he did for her and says he can leave. She cries and says there is no way to pay him. He kisses her, and she cries.
Ruth is packing, and the newspaper says, “Ruth Etting weds Martin Snyder.” Marty offers to help her pack. He says they are going to a jewelry store. He says she will thank him.
They travel, and Ruth performs. Her show runs for twelve weeks. In Miami she sings “Ten Cents a Dance.” In her dressing-room she drinks. Marty comes in and says she is going to make a picture in Hollywood. She is not enthusiastic, and he advises her not to drink. She gets a call from Johnny in Hollywood. Marty comes in, and she ends the call. She tells Marty she does not want to go.
Loomis takes Marty to the studio to meet Paul Hunter (Richard Gaines). Marty learns that Johnny is the music director. Loomis and Marty tell Ruth that Johnny was there. Marty brags, and Ruth puts him down. He says he makes her tick and walks out. Georgie explains that Marty was a big man in Chicago, but here he is not. Marty knocks him down. Marty tells Georgie to take Ruth to the studio.
Johnny and Ruth are glad to see each other, and he says she is beautiful. They work on the songs while Georgie watches. He plays piano, and she sings “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.” He asks if she is always unhappy. He asks her for lunch or a drink, and she says she can’t.
Georgie takes Ruth to dinner with Marty and Loomis. He sends her steak back and tells her that he owns the night club. He says he is going to remodel it. At home Ruth drinks and says she is nervous. He says he will sleep in the other room, and she goes to bed.
Marty supervises the work on the club. He chooses waitresses by looking at their legs. Georgie comes in and says Ruth is working that night. Marty asks how Ruth acts with Johnny. George says she does not even talk to him.
Marty goes to the studio and watches Ruth sing “Never Look Back” as Johnny conducts the orchestra. After the song she smiles at Johnny, and Marty calls Georgie dumb. Marty leaves, and Ruth thanks Johnny and says goodnight. Paul Hunter tells Ruth that Marty told him he has to fire Johnny or her. She tells him she will be there.
At the club Ruth asks Marty why he is spoiling the picture by forcing Johnny out. He says he will present her so that people will know who is boss. She asks him if he is losing his grip, and he slaps her. She leaves in a car. Marty goes home, but she is not there.
Marty pushes his way into Johnny’s place, and he says she is not there. Marty warns him, and Johnny hopes she will have the guts to leave him. At home Marty makes calls. He gets a call to meet her with Loomis. She asks Marty for a divorce. He says it is Johnny, but she says it is Marty. He tells her to get a lawyer; he will give her what she wants. He wants to see how she will do without him. Marty tells Georgie that she will come back to him.
On a sound stage in a swing Ruth sings “At Sundown.” Johnny asks Ruth if she is all right. She admits she left him and tells him to stay away from her.
At the club Georgie tells Marty they would not let him in. He says Loomis needs to talk to him. Georgie asks him to forget about her. Marty gets upset and breaks glasses.
Ruth sees Johnny, and he asks to drive her home. She says she can’t take the chance. She says she loves him and then leaves in her car. Johnny follows her and kisses her on her porch. They say goodnight, and she goes in. Johnny turns to leave, and Marty shoots him, saying he warned him he would.
Ruth visits Johnny in the hospital and says she loves him. Loomis tells her that photographers are down stairs. She asks about Marty and his club. He says it won’t open, and he warns her not to help him. She says they have to fix it for him.
Ruth visits Marty in jail. She says Johnny is going to be all right. She says she loves Johnny and is going to marry him. He asks if she is scared. He says he is through with her.
Georgie drives a car and tells Marty that Loomis put up his bail. They go to the club. He sees a large sign, “Martin Snyder presents Ruth Etting.” Marty is angry, but Georgie and Loomis restrain him. Marty gives permission for pictures backstage. He denies that Ruth and he are getting back together. He goes inside, and Ruth sings “Love Me or Leave Me.” He goes to the bar and tells Loomis that the girl can sing.
This musical biopic reflects an interaction between gangsters and the nightclub business that enables a hood to have power over the career of an entertainer. She wants a career but does not want to cheapen herself to please his desires; but after she has achieved success, perhaps out of gratitude, she gives in and marries him even though she loves another man more. This mistake promotes the drama and the conflicts that could have been avoided if she had made a wiser choice. Yet ambition for success in a career can cause people to do crazy things.