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The film tells the adventures of Harvey Cheyne Jr. (Freddie Bartholomew), the arrogant and spoiled son of an indulgent absentee-father, business tycoon (Melvyn Douglas). Harvey falls overboard from a transatlantic steamship and is rescued by an American fisherman of Portuguese descent, Manuel (Spencer Tracy), on the Grand Banks and taken aboard the fishing vessel. Harvey fails to persuade the captain to take him ashore, nor convince the crew of his wealth. However, the captain of the vessel, the We're Here, Disko Troop (Lionel Barrymore), offers him a low-paid job as part of the crew until they return to port months later. With no other choice, Harvey accepts. He is befriended by Captain Troop's son, Dan (Mickey Rooney), and begins to learn the ways of working at sea. Under the guidance of Manuel and his equally tough crew-mates, he thrives, and learns that his former practice of cheating, bragging, and whining, don't go far in real life. Tragically, Harvey loses his surrogate father when Manuel is drowned in an accident as the boat heads for port. Eventually, the schooner returns to port and Harvey is reunited with his father, who had given him up for dead (not having any word since his son's disappearance - the vessel "We're Here" has no radio). The father rushes to the fishing town (Gloucester, Massachusetts) and is surprised to find that his bratty, self-centered child has become a mature, considerate young man. The father also learns that he has neglected his motherless son and learns the joy of being a good father.