After kicking a customer for getting fresh, 1920s Chicago nightclub singer Ruth Etting is in jeopardy of losing her job when Martin Snyder intervenes on her behalf. Snyder, known as “The Gimp” to some because of his game leg, owns a laundry business and runs a protection racket, wielding considerable clout.
Etting and her piano accompanist Johnny Alderman are grateful, but Snyder makes it clear he expects Etting to travel to Miami with him, not for business but for pleasure. Etting declines, but Snyder’s interest in her continues. Through an agent, Bernie Loomis, he arranges a radio program to feature Etting, followed by a job with the famed Ziegfeld Follies. His crude behavior and violent temper cause Etting a number of problems along the way.
Johnny is in love with Etting as well, but she marries Snyder out of gratitude. His heavy-handed management continues as her popularity grows. Goaded to get into the entertainment business, Snyder decides to open a nightclub of his own. Upset at sensing a relationship resuming between Etting and Johnny during their filming of a Hollywood movie, Snyder strikes her. He then catches them together, shoots Johnny and is arrested.
Horrified but conflicted because of all Snyder has done for her career, Etting arranges for Loomis to bail him out of jail. At his neglected nightclub, Snyder arrives to find that Etting is performing there herself. At first enraged by what he perceives as an act of charity, Snyder finally realizes this is Etting’s way of showing her appreciation, even if she can’t be part of his life any longer.