Down on his luck, Jim Carter (Spencer Tracy) meets up with "Pop" McWade (Henry B. Walthall) and the two become friends. Pop gives Jim a job as a barker at his Coney Island concession stand called Dante's Inferno. It's one of the least popular attractions around. His first night on the job, Jim displays his showmanship by attracting big crowds. Later he gets to know Pop's niece, Betty (Claire Trevor). They fall in love and are soon married.
Shortly after, Jim gets the idea to re-do Pop's place. He turns Dante's Inferno into the biggest attraction in Coney Island. From there Jim climbs the ladder of success, with no regard for those he steps on along the way. He, his wife and newborn son become wealthy. But greed has overcome Jim. He knows Dante's Inferno is not up to safety code, but rather than spend money on repairs, he bribes the inspector. Inevitably, the structure collapses. Many are injured, including Pop. He's put on trial and denies even having spoken to the inspector on the day in question. Betty, who knows Jim talked to him that day, lies on the stand to save him from jail. But she can't stay. Taking their son, Sonny (Scott Beckett), she leaves him.
Meanwhile, Jim proceeds with an ambitious plan for a gambling ship. Though warned to postpone the date of the maiden voyage because of a worker's strike, he goes ahead on schedule. Amidst the drunken revelers emerges the floorshow, the dancing duo of Rita Cansino and Gary Leon. Unfortunately, the entertainment is cut short when an especially unruly drunkard starts a fire. Pandemonium erupts, people run for the lifeboats. Sonny had been on board. The fact that his son's life was endangered by his reckless action finally changes Jim's attitude. The family is then re-united.