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J. R. Compton, a powerful industrialist, welcomes his son Ray home from college by bringing him to his company headquarters, as he expects Ray to join the family business. When he sees that the company sign has not been changed as he had ordered, J. R. immediately fires the longtime employee who was responsible, despite the fact that there were legal complications preventing the alteration. J. R. assigns his second-in-command, Evans, to train Ray, and the young man is given documentation and catalogs to study in order to learn about the business. Ray instead asks his father to allow him to learn by starting at the bottom as a machinist, as J. R. once did. A reluctant J. R. then assigns Ray to the machine shop and, at Ray's insistence, promises not to arrange for special treatment. Later that day, J. R. gives Ray a chauffeur-driven tour of the employee tract housing, proudly pointing out that homeowners are only allowed to grow petunias in their yards because that is his preference. Ray begins training on a lathe with veteran machinist Ed Jenks, but keeps his true identity a secret. After six months, Ray informs his father that he plans to continue working as a machinist until he is proficient, even if it takes years. One afternoon during a lunch break, Ray comments that the factory does not seem to run efficiently. Ed responds that because of J. R.'s inhumane treatment of workers, people work for a paycheck rather than a sense of accomplishment. Within the year, Ray's blueblood former girl friend, Betty Coughlin, returns from Europe and, upon reuniting with Ray, fails to understand why he has chosen manual labor. Betty, who resents Ray's work interfering with her pleasure, abruptly breaks off their date when Ray insists he will have to retire early because he is working the next day. Ed, meanwhile, has learned Ray's true identity from a co-worker, and the next day, renounces their friendship because Ray lied to him. Ray believes that Ed is allowing class to come between them and tries to engage Ed in a conversation, but Ed speaks only to warn Ray to don his safety goggles. Ray fails to heed Ed's warning and is injured when a metal shaving flies into his eye. Although the wound is only superficial, J. R. fires Ed and docks the shop manager's pay. Ray admits that the error was his alone, but J. R. insists that infallibility is a mark of success. Ray goes to Ed's house to apologize, but Ed has not yet returned from the factory so Ray is met by Ed's beautiful daughter Jane, a local bank employee. Jane is unaware that Ray is J. R.'s son and, during their conversation, reveals that local residents loathe his father. When Ed finally arrives, he refuses to accept Ray's apology, particularly after Jane learns that she, too, has been fired. Ray then visits Jane's bank manager, Murdock, and learns that Evans ordered him to dismiss Jane. Ray quits after confronting his resolute father and later that evening, takes a long drive. Ray's car is forced off the road by two thugs, who then beat him unconscious in retribution for Ed's dismissal. Ray recuperates in the hospital, and is pleased when Jane visits and assures him that Ed had nothing to do with the attack. J. R. inaugurates a plan to fire ten factory workers per day until the culprits are turned in. When Ray recovers his father asks him to return to work, but Ray resists until he learns that J. R. has re-hired Ed and had Jane reinstated at the bank. Jane and Ray, meanwhile, have fallen in love. True to his ideals as a worker, Ray announces his support of the local labor union at their meeting. When Ray proposes to Jane, and she reveals that she is reluctant to marry him because she believes that both J. R. and their differing social classes will ultimately interfere with their marriage. Ray insists that she accept, and returns home to announce his engagement. He is forestalled, however, because his father is irate over his public support of the labor union. Ray then accuses his father of destroying his employees' motivation, and informs him of his plans to offer security, dignity and advancement when he takes over the company. The argument explodes into physical violence until J. R. comes close to striking his son with a fireplace poker. Ray stalks out, leaving his father bereft. Late that night, J. R. goes to the factory and becomes enthralled with working on the lathe until morning, when he proudly shows his work to the night watchman. At the same time, Ray visits Ed and Jane to tell them he plans to disavow his inheritance. Ray and the Jenkses are surprised when a phone call from J. R. puts a smile on Ray's face. Having rediscovered the joy of honest labor, J. R. introduces new policies during a board meeting, and gleefully agrees with Ray that employees should grow whatever kind of flower they wish at their homes. Factory police then bring in the two thugs responsible for attacking Ray, and after the leader of the labor union reveals that they are Communists and not affiliated with his organization, they arrange to have the men arrested. Years later, a much older J. R. gives Jane his wife's diamond necklace to celebrate Ray and Jane's anniversary. As Ray is now taking over leadership of the company, J. R. also presents his son with a piece of a lathe encased in glass, as a symbolic reminder that he should never forget the joy of worthwhile labor.