In the rural South, sisters and musical performers Janey and Penny Low are hitchhiking to Hollywood, when the corrupt Sheriff Mitch Bowers arrests them. During their trial, the county judge, Cecile Steele, sentences them to thirty days, which they can choose to serve in prison or at a work farm. The girls choose the latter and are taken by Mitch with other young offenders to a cotton farm owned by Russ Tropp.
After Tropp pays Mitch for trumping up charges against young people in order to provide him with cheap labor, the sheriff tells the new workers that most of their meager earnings will be reclaimed by the farm to pay for their living expenses. When Tropp discovers that Lilibet, a young laborer he promoted to housekeeper to serve him in bed, has been romancing one of his hired men, he fires the man and demotes Lilibet to "cottonpicker" status. In the bunkhouse, Lilibet starts a petty quarrel with the sisters, which erupts into a fight, but after Tropp intervenes, the girls acknowledge that he is their common enemy and befriend one another.
Cecile's son Bob, who has mustered out of the Navy, takes a regular job at the farm working the cotton gin and is greeted warmly by Tropp, who bought the farm from the widowed Cecile. When neighboring farmers Yancey and Collingwood come to negotiate for the use of workers to harvest their fields, Tropp insists on sixty percent of their profits. Mystified by Tropp's abundant work force when there is a labor shortage, the farmers are forced to accept the lopsided deal or watch their crops rot away. While the young people work in the hot sun, a worker named Baby passes out. When Bob tries to assist her, the foreman, Jack Landis, assures him that a doctor will be contacted.
That evening, Tropp visits Cecile, with whom he is having a secret affair. She suggests assigning some of the delinquents to neighboring farms in order to be fair. Unwilling to share the wealth he is amassing from his profitable arrangement, Tropp argues that his money pushed the work farm legislation through the courts and paid for her election, and that he deserves to have all the workers. Although he pretends to care for Cecile, he is just using her and is biding his time until he no longer needs her.
At the ranch, Janey tells Bob, who is concerned about Baby's mysterious illness, that his mother did not provide medical checkups for the inmates before sentencing them to farm labor. Despite the hard work during the day, at night the young people enjoy dancing in the mess hall and the talented Penny often performs for them. After watching her, Pinky, the loquacious cook, suggests to Tropp that he arrange an audition for her at a local television station he partially owns. Remembering Penny's blonde and buxom physique, Tropp says to send her up to the house, where he tries to force her to "pay for" favors he might provide later.
When Penny does not return from the house, the worried Janey tells Bob, who offers to fetch her. He knocks at Tropp's door and asks him to arrange for Baby to get medical attention. While Tropp is distracted, Penny slips out of the house and Tropp sends out his two vicious dogs to corner her. After Bob comes to her rescue and escorts her to the mess hall, he witnesses the workers being grossly overcharged for necessary work shoes and notices empty cans of dog food, which he realizes are being served to the workers as stew. His discoveries are mentioned to Tropp by one of his hired hands. Nervous about what Bob is observing, Tropp meets with Cecile under the pretense of romancing her and convinces her to find other outlets for Bob's energy.
Later, Baby passes out again and Bob takes her to the doctor's office, where she dies. The doctor reports that Baby, who was concealing a pregnancy, miscarried and died from hemorrhaging. Bob complains to Cecile, who trusts that Tropp is fulfilling his "part of the agreement" by providing medical checkups for his workers. She suggests that Tropp is unaware that his staff is feeding the workers dog food, but when Bob insists that Tropp does know about the dog food and tells her about other abuses, she reveals that she has been secretly married to him for four months. Bob returns to the ranch, intending to quit, but decides to stay when he realizes he is falling in love with Janey. Cecile has Janey brought to her office for questioning and the girl not only confirms Bob's report, but adds that Tropp sexually harrasses the girls.
Later, while Bob is waiting for Janey to return, Mitch and a Mexican man meet with Tropp. Eavesdropping on them, Rita, a Spanish-speaking inmate, tells Bob that they are planning to bring immigrants in illegally to work at the farm. When his dogs alert Tropp to Bob and Rita's presence, Tropp orders Mitch to drive them into Mexico and leave them there. Penny rounds up the other inmates, who confront Tropp and prevent the car from leaving. When Mitch gets out to deal with them, the Mexican tries to escape in Mitch's car, but Bob grabs the steering wheel and forces the car to crash. Mitch is threatening to shoot when Cecile arrives with Janey. She orders Mitch to search Tropp, and after paperwork found in Tropp's pocket documents his illegal deal, she orders his arrest. To see that Mitch carries out his orders, Cecile deputizes several of the inmates. Then, acknowledging to the whole crowd that the county failed to protect them, she announces that she will commute their sentences to time already served before resigning her post.
Later, the Steeles and Janey, who has stayed to marry Bob, watch a television program featuring Penny in a musical number. After her performance, the television announcer predicts that Penny will be a great success.
- Mamie Van Doren
- Lori Nelson
- John Russell
- Don Burnett
- Glenn Dixon
- Lurene Tuttle
- Eddie Cochran
- Yvonne Fedderson
- Jeanne Carmen
- Robert Foulk
- The condemnation of this film by the Catholic League of Decency is popularly believed to have unintentionally driven curiosity seekers to the box office.
- This is the only film where rockabilly musician Eddie Cochran portrayed a character rather than appearing as himself.
- Released on a double bill with Hell's Crossroads (with Peggie Castle and Robert Vaughn).