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During the early part of the century, in the Irish-American section of Brooklyn, the poor Nolan family struggles to make ends meet in their tenement flat. Johnny Nolan, an infrequently employed singing waiter, is an alcoholic whose jovial, impractical nature is the delight and despair of his hard-working wife Katie, who serves as the tenement's scrubwoman. Their two children, the ever-hungry Neeley and the wistful, teenaged Francie, help Katie by selling rags. Francie idolizes her father, who encourages her to daydream about better times to come. One afternoon, Francie notices with dismay that the tree growing in the tenement courtyard is being ruthlessly trimmed. She is distracted, however, by the arrival of insurance agent Barker, who collects Katie's weekly premiums. Barker, a notorious gossip, reveals that Katie's sister Sissy has married for the third time. Katie is furious but the children are delighted that they will have another uncle Bill, for Sissy always calls her husbands Bill. Later that evening, Johnny comes home and learns from Francie that "their" tree has been cut. Johnny assures her that the tree will grow back in the spring, then leaves for a job singing at a wedding. When Sissy arrives soon after for a visit, Katie castigates her for marrying again without obtaining a divorce from her last husband. The earthy Sissy protests that she waited for seven years before re-marrying, and insists that she really loves her new man, who is a milkman named Steve Edwards. Sissy then joins the children on the sidewalk, and when a neighborhood woman complains about the Nolans borrowing her daughter's roller skates, police officer McShane breaks up the loud discussion. McShane, who is new to the neighborhood, is charmed by Katie's loveliness, but she is nonplussed by his attraction. Afraid that Sissy is a bad influence on the children, Katie forbids her to visit again. Johnny returns home late that night and is thrilled to see Katie waiting up for him. Francie and Neeley awaken, and Johnny regales them with tales of the wedding. After the children return to bed, Johnny promises Katie that he will make a "fresh start," but the pragmatic Katie knows that nothing will come of his big talk. The next morning, Francie and Neeley are on their way to school when they see the drunken Johnny staggering home. McShane escorts him up the stairs and is stunned to learn that he is Katie's husband. Later, Francie confides in Johnny her dream to attend a nicer school in a better neighborhood. Even though it means lying about their address, Johnny convinces Katie to let Francie go, and Francie becomes a member of Miss McDonough's class at the new school. Soon after, Katie moves the family to a tiny, less expensive apartment on the top floor of the tenement. Believing that Katie made the move out of stinginess, Johnny forlornly sings "Annie Laurie," accompanying himself on a piano left by the former occupant. On Christmas Eve, Miss McDonough encourages Francie to become a writer, and after class is over, Francie and Neeley obtain a leftover tree from a Christmas tree vendor. The children carry their prize home, and the Nolans are joined by Steve and Sissy, whose pregnancy has reconciled her with Katie. Katie confides in Sissy that she is pregnant also, and later that night, tells Johnny. Finally realizing why Katie moved them to the cheaper apartment, Johnny is further crushed when Katie insists that Francie will have to quit school before her graduation from eighth grade, so that she can go to work. Determined to keep Francie in school, Johnny leaves to find a job, but after he has been missing for over a week, Katie begins searching for him. Later, McShane brings her news that Johnny died from pneumonia while looking for work, and at his funeral, many people lament his loss. So grief-stricken that she cannot cry, Francie stoically agrees to work with Neeley in McGarrity's bar after school to help provide for the family. Katie is relieved that Francie can stay in school but is aware that Francie blames her for Johnny's death. After Sissy's baby is born safely in a hospital, Katie asks Francie to remain close by until her time comes, for they cannot afford a hospital. One afternoon, Katie goes into labor, and as Francie comforts her, Katie reveals how much she misses Johnny, and mother and daughter draw closer. They name the baby Annie Laurie, and the little family continues. Graduation day arrives, and while Katie attends Neeley's ceremony at the old school, Sissy goes with Francie. On her desk, Francie discovers a bouquet paid for with money Johnny gave to Sissy before Christmas, and also a card he wrote to her. The gesture finally enables Francie to release her grief, and after a good cry, she receives her diploma with her class. Afterward, the family has ice cream at the drugstore, and a neighborhood boy asks Francie out on her first date. When the Nolans return to their apartment, they find McShane helping Steve babysit Annie Laurie. Sissy and Steve leave, and McShane asks Katie if he can keep company with her, intending to marry her as soon as she feels that a decent interval has passed. Touched by McShane's kindness, Katie agrees, and Francie, as the eldest, also gives her consent. McShane promises to be a good friend to the two oldest children and asks permission to adopt Annie Laurie. When Francie and Neeley go outside to leave the courting couple alone, they remark that while their sister's life will be easier than theirs, she will not have as much fun. Francie then notices that her tree is growing again, just as Johnny promised it would.