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In 1913, seventeen-year-old Ruth Gordon Jones watches breathlessly from the balcony of a Boston theater as stage star Hazel Dawn performs in a lavish musical number. That night, at her family's modest apartment in Wollaston, Ruth listens as her gruff father Clinton, from whom she has kept her own theatrical aspirations a secret, complains to her mother Annie about their financial difficulties. Ruth is thrilled when she receives an autographed photograph of Hazel, and tells her boyfriend, Harvard student Fred Whitmarsh, that she intends to become a successful actress. Meanwhile, Clinton, a former sailor who now works in a factory, informs his wife that he has decided Ruth should attend the Boston Physical Culture Institute and train for a career as a physical education teacher. Ruth later receives a letter from Hazel inviting her for a visit at the theater following the Wednesday matinee, and she feigns illness to get out of school. Several days later, while going to an amateur gymnastics exhibition at the YMCA with her parents, Ruth receives a telegram stating that Hazel has arranged an interview for her with well-known director John Craig. Ruth is distracted throughout the exhibition, although she is mortified by Clinton's comic participation in the event. When the family gets home, Clinton insists on filling out Ruth's application to the School of Physical Culture right away, and with Annie's encouragement, Ruth timidly tells her father that she wants to go on the stage. Clinton admits he has always enjoyed the theater, but remains skeptical about his diminutive daughter's potential. Ruth puts on a hasty performance for her parents and tells them about her upcoming interview with Craig, but Clinton insists that she finish high school before seeking work. The following day, Clinton tells Annie that he is worried about his job security, as one of his co-workers, Dan, may have been forced to retire early. Meanwhile, Fred encounters Ruth outside of Craig's office and proposes to her, but she gently declines his offer. That evening, a crestfallen Ruth returns home and tells her parents that Craig was not impressed with her. Just then, Clinton gets a phone call from Dan, who assures him that he chose to retire. Greatly relieved, Clinton comforts Ruth and promises to give her half of his annual bonus so that she can study acting in New York after graduation. Explaining his determination to help his daughter get a start in life, Clinton speaks for the first time about his own miserable childhood, his mother's suicide and how he ran away from his cruel great-aunts when he was eight years old and became a cabin boy on a whaling vessel. On the day Ruth is to leave for New York, however, Clinton comes home and tells Annie he has quit his job after an argument with his boss. Ruth refuses to be defeated by her circumstances, and Clinton, impressed by her gumption, gives her his valuable telescope and instructs her to sell it in New York. After Clinton tells his grateful daughter that her kind thoughts are all the repayment her parents need, the Jones family walks together to the train station.