The place is New York City. The time is the years leading up to The American Civil War. Sylvia "Dimples" Appleby (Temple) lives with her eccentric grandfather, "The Professor" (Morgan). Supposedly a music teacher, the Professor's actual discipline appears to be thievery. Mrs. Caroline Drew (Helen Westley), a Grande Dame, takes a liking to Dimples and wants to adopt her, but Dimples and the Professor refuse to be separated. Meanwhile, Mrs. Drew has disowned her nephew Allen (Robert Kent) for becoming a Broadway producer, this being back when the theatre wasn't considered reputable. Allen plans to adapt the country's latest bestseller, Uncle Tom's Cabin, as a play, and wouldn't you know it, he needs someone to play Little Eva.
This film provides examples of:
- Antebellum America: The movie is set in New York during this era. An opening title card defines the setting as the time when theatre was becoming more acceptable and slavery was becoming more controversial. That is, it's the Dawn of an Era for Broadway theatre (and, by extension, the American entertainment industry) while also being near the End of an Age with regards to U.S. slavery. Both these trends come together with the Uncle Tom's Cabin play.
- Bad Liar: At one point, the Professor is fishing next to a sign reading "no fishing allowed". Dimples, evidently not able to read, asks what the sign says. The Professor, thinking not-so-quickly, replies that it says "no smoking allowed"... forgetting that he's also smoking.
- Banister Slide: Dimples tries this while in Mrs. Drew's fancy home
- Blackface: The black characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin are played by white actors in blackface. While trying to escape from the police, the Professor puts on blackface makeup and tries to pretend he's an actor in the play.
- The Con: The Professor himself falls for a con with two men acting as shills, causing him to lose the eight hundred dollars needed for the play
- Everybody Cries: The effect of Eva's death scene in the Uncle Tom's Cabin play. Mrs. Drew is so moved by it that she changes her mind about the respectability of the theatre.
- The Fagin: The Professor's "pupils", i.e. a gang of street urchins including Dimples
- Minstrel Shows: The final scene of the movie is an in-universe minstrel show. The movie claims, as part of its Dawn of an Era theme, that this is the first minstrel show to come to New York. Actually, the Virginia Minstrels performed on the New York stage in 1843, about a decade before the film's early 1850s setting. Incidentally, a clip of this scene is featured in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled.
- The Smurfette Principle: Dimples is the only girl amongst the Professor's "pupils"
- Street Musician: The Professor's "pupils", led by Dimples, perform music in the streets, providing a distraction for him to pick pockets. Being innocent, Dimples knows nothing about it, although the other children suspect. When confronted about it, she insists "the Professor is one of the honestest men in the world - and besides, he's reformed!"
- Show Within a Show: The production of Uncle Tom's Cabin
- Sticky Fingers: The Professor
- Uncle Tomfoolery: The Professor's servant is played by Stepin Fetchit, doing his customary shtick.