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In the late nineteenth century, Magnolia Hawks, daughter of Cap'n Andy, the owner of the Mississippi show boat the Cotton Blossom , falls in love with gambler Gaylord Ravenal while touring in a small town. Magnolia's strict mother Parthy disapproves of her daughter's friendship with the show's leading actress, Julie LaVerne, whom she calls a "hussy." Despite Julie's protective feelings towards Magnolia, Parthy forbids Magnolia from spending any more time with her. Meanwhile, a jealous suitor whom Julie has spurned exacts his revenge by providing the local sheriff with birth records proving that Julie is a mulatto. Seeing that the sheriff is about to board the ship to charge Julie with miscegenation and arrest her, Stephen, Julie's white husband, deliberately cuts his finger and exchanges blood with his wife so that the he, too, will have black blood in him. No longer able to justify Julie's arrest, the sheriff departs, but not before advising her to leave the ship to avoid the wrath of the townspeople. Steve leaves the troupe to join Julie, and Gaylord later takes Steve's place as the leading man in the show. Gaylord then suggests that Magnolia replace Julie, and the two prove a hit with audiences all along the Mississippi. In time, the two stars fall deeper in love, and, after marrying, they spend their honeymoon in Chicago. There Gaylord resumes his heavy gambling and loses all his money. Suspecting that Magnolia no longer loves him, Gaylord leaves her, unaware that she is pregnant. Magnolia becomes distraught, but two of her friends, dancers Ellie May Shipley and Frank Schultz, take her to audition for stage manager Jake Green. Julie, who has turned to heavy drinking after Steve left her, is a singer in Green's variety show, but quietly leaves the show when she hears Magnolia auditioning. Magnolia performs her first show on New Year's Eve, and although she very nervously starts to sing "After the Ball," she later gains the confidence needed to sing beautifully when she sees her proud father in the audience. While Gaylord continues his obsessive gambling, Magnolia gives birth to a girl, whom she names Kim Ravenal. Time passes, and Julie, accidentally meeting Gaylord on a show boat, tells him that he has a five-year-old daughter. Gaylord finds his daughter in the town of Natchez, where she is performing with her mother and grandfather, and he takes her into his arms. Much to Julie's delight, Magnolia and Gaylord reconcile, and Gaylord gives up his gambling to rejoin his wife and family on the Cotton Blossom .