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At a Chicago dance club in the 1920s, small-time Jewish gangster Martin Snyder is collecting money for his laundry service and protection racket when an altercation breaks out over a taxi dancer, Ruth Etting, who has kicked a customer for getting fresh. Ruth is fired, and Marty--who is known as "The Gimp" because he walks with a limp--offers to help with her show business aspirations by using his many nightclub connections. Marty's business card gets Ruth a job as a chorus dancer at a fancy nightclub, where she meets handsome pianist Johnny Alderman. Eager to reap his reward for helping her, Marty tells Ruth she is going to Miami with him, but when she angrily refuses to be his mistress, he relents. Although he has no idea if Ruth can even sing, Marty hires Johnny as her coach and arranger, and Ruth turns out to have great natural talent. Johnny warns her that Marty's intentions are not honorable, but Ruth maintains that she needs him to advance her career. Marty arranges for Ruth to replace the headliner at the club, and her debut is a great success. Marty fills Ruth's dressing room with flowers and tells her after the show that they will celebrate at a weekend house party in the country. Ruth demurs, saying she is too tired to go out, but Marty informs her that their relationship has changed. As they quarrel, Ruth smoothly manipulates Marty, who has fallen in love with her, and he cancels the weekend plans. One night after a show, Ruth introduces Marty to New York agent Bernard V. Loomis, who says he has lined up a booking for her. Marty jealously dismisses Loomis, telling Ruth that he has other plans for her. Marty then tells his right-hand man Georgie that he wants to get Ruth radio exposure, and she soon has her own radio program, with Johnny conducting the orchestra. Now in love with Ruth himself, Johnny advises her to end her relationship with Marty and let Loomis represent her, but she refuses. As Ruth's popularity grows, Marty contacts Loomis and arranges Ruth's New York debut as the star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Johnny tells Marty he will not accompany them to New York, and the men argue bitterly over Ruth. During rehearsals, Marty is outraged when Ziegfeld's staff does not treat him with the respect he is accustomed to commanding in Chicago. Loomis counsels him to keep a lower profile, to avoid damaging Ruth's chances, and Marty tries to rein himself in. However, Marty insists on seeing Ruth after her first number on opening night, and when he finds he is not welcome backstage, becomes violent. Angry and humiliated, Marty wants to break Ruth's contract, but she refuses to leave the show. When Ruth tearfully explains that his crass behavior does not fit in with her new life, Marty reproaches her for not standing by him. Although she does not love Marty, Ruth marries him out of a sense of obligation and quits the Follies. Ruth's career continues to flourish under Marty's management, and she sells out nightclub appearances all over the East Coast as Marty works tirelessly on her behalf. One night, Marty tells Ruth he has made a movie deal for her, but the embittered Ruth, who has taken to drinking, responds indifferently. She brightens when she receives a phone call from Johnny, who now works in Hollywood and says he will be working on the film with her. In Hollywood, Marty and Loomis meet with producer Paul Hunter, and Marty is shocked to discover that Johnny is the music director on the picture. Afterward, Marty derides Johnny to Loomis as a phony, and Ruth snaps that Marty has accomplished nothing on his own. Stung by Ruth's words, Marty sells his laundry in Chicago and invests all his money in a nightclub that he wants to remodel. Later, Marty secretly comes to the studio and watches a recording session, and fumes when he notices the silent connection between Ruth and Johnny. Marty tries to have Johnny fired from the picture, and orders Ruth to quit the film and work in his club. When Ruth accuses him of being afraid of losing his grip on her, Marty loses his temper and strikes her. Ruth flees, and the next day arranges a meeting in Loomis' office, where she tearfully begs Marty for a divorce. Although Marty declares that Ruth will come running back to him, he is crushed by the rejection and can think of nothing else, even with his club about to open. Several nights later, Johnny follows Ruth home and kisses her, and as he returns to his car, Marty shoots him. At the hospital, Ruth declares her love for Johnny, then tells Loomis that she feels bad about the way she left Marty. She visits Marty in jail and says she plans to marry Johnny, then tries to thank him for all he has done, but Marty bitterly refuses to listen. Loomis bails Marty out of jail, and Georgie takes him to the club, where Marty is shocked to see a neon sign announcing Ruth's appearance. Marty flies into a rage at the "handout," but Loomis insists that he be big enough to allow Ruth to repay him. Due to the publicity generated by the shooting, the club is swarming with autograph-seekers and press, and as Marty escorts the reporters through his elegant establishment, his old confidence begins to return. When asked about Ruth's appearance at the club, Marty replies that it is strictly a business arrangement, adding that he has great respect for Ruth as an artist. As the floor show begins, Marty watches with pride and satisfaction as Ruth sings before the appreciative audience.