Adapted from David Karsner's novel, the son of a meat-packer takes over the business and is urged by his mistress to be ruthlessly ambitious.
In 1892 John Hayden (Edward G. Robinson) is in Athens and wants three years before taking over his father's meat-packing business; but his father dies, and John returns to Chicago. John sees Martha Lane (Genevieve Tobin) stuck in the mud and helps her deliver charity food. Late to his meeting, John tells them he will get other packers to help rebuild Chicago. John gets $20,000 from Charles Lane (Robert Barrat). Martha sings for him, and they marry.
Five years later Larkin (Robert McWade) tells John they need $5,000,000 and sends him to Charles. Martha has a committee to help the Cubans, and John offers cans of meat. John tells her he needs a loan from her father, whom he helped before. Martha urges John to merge his plant with her father's, and he agrees if he does not pay it back in one year. Laura McDonald (Kay Francis) calls on John and asks for two years operatic training in Europe. They go to her apartment so she can sing for him; he misses his wife's party.
In the 1898 war John opposes raising prices. John tells Laura he loves her and wants to marry her; but she prefers fresh love and encourages him to be ruthlessly ambitious. John tells his men he is done with humanitarianism. He says he bought beef and is willing to mix it. Soldiers die from bad meat, and Charles blames John, who pays off the $5,000,000. Col. Roosevelt threatens to smash John for murdering his men. John and the packers are glad Roosevelt is out of the way as Vice President. In his club a man talks about Laura, and John slaps him. John learns that Roosevelt is President, and Charles tells Martha that John will be indicted. Laura and John toast friendship, and she attends his trial. Martha is going to leave John, but he is acquitted. Martha tells detective Farrell (Henry O'Neill) she wants a scandal. They sneak in and see Laura with another man. John arrives, and Laura says he was never the only one. Upset John says he will build higher. At home Martha gives John cocktails but dismisses his romantic notions toward her.
In the 1914 war John signs European contracts, but Charles warns him the war will end. Then contracts are canceled, and Charles advises receivership. John says he is too big for that but can't get a loan. He asks Martha to get her father to help him prevent an audit; but this is her revenge, and she says she is leaving him. Prosecutor Brandt (Douglass Dumbrille) questions John about his books, and he is indicted. John flees to Athens. Ten years later John is still there and is visited by Laura.
Instead of nurturing his own inclinations, John runs his father's business and marries a meat-packer's daughter; but his interest in an opera singer ruins his marriage. When he ignores his conscience, he hurts many and becomes a major criminal.