Adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, a girl is put in a school and has to work after her prominent father's death is reported.
In 1899 the British are marching off to the Boer War. Sara Crewe (Shirley Temple) is put in a school by her father Captain Reginald Crewe (Ian Hunter). Amanda Minchin (Mary Nash) demands an interview and gives her the best room. Her father says good-bye, and Sara cries. From her window Sara meets her neighbor Ram Dass (Cesar Romero) and talks of India. Miss Minchin orders the girls to treat Sara well. Rose (Anita Louise) tells riding instructor Geoffrey Hamilton (Richard Greene) that Miss Minchin won't let her see him. Bertie Minchin (Arthur Treacher) and Sara sing and dance. Shirley gets a letter from her father in besieged Mafeking. Geoffrey says he is going there. Lord Wickham (Miles Mander) complains his grandson Geoffrey is a riding master. Sara gets Miss Minchin's permission to invite Geoffrey to tea. Geoffrey and Rose are married, and Miss Minchin catches them together. Sara prays for her father. Everyone cheers the news that Mafeking was relieved. Sara celebrates her birthday and gives presents.
Miss Minchin learns that Captain Crewe is dead and that Sara is penniless and owes money. Miss Minchin collects the gifts and orders Rose to tell Sara. Miss Minchin moves her to a poor room and gives her a black dress. Sara is told to leave the table and must eat and work in the kitchen. Miss Minchin takes Rose's letter from Geoffrey and gives the check to Lord Wickham after dismissing Rose. Wickham tells Ram Dass to return letters from Geoffrey. Sara tells the servant girl Becky (Sybil Jason) that she believes her father is alive. Bertie tells his sister he joined the army and leaves. At a hospital Sara asks Bertie about her father, and they search among the wounded. Bertie and Sara sing "Tenth Row" and dance. Ram Dass visits Sara's room to retrieve his parrot. Sara imagines books and fine things. Sara breaks a bowl and is denied dinner.
In the hospital unknown Captain Crewe calls for Sara. Haughty Lavinia (Marcia Mae Jones) makes Sara serve her. At night Sara goes to the hospital but is turned away. After arguing with Miss Minchin, Sara dreams she is a princess in a happy court, where in rhyme Miss Minchin accuses Geoffrey of kissing Rose; but Sara banishes Miss Minchin. Sara wakes to find her room improved and shows Becky. Ram Dass and Lord Wickham watch. Sara pours ashes on Lavinia. Miss Minchin asks Sara where she got the fine things and locks her in. Sara and Becky go out the window to Ram Dass. Sara escapes while Becky is caught. At the hospital Sara asks Victoria (Beryl Mercer) to help find Captain Crewe. Sara sees Rose visiting Geoffrey. Sara flees Miss Minchin and finds her father, getting him to recognize her.
The spirited Shirley Temple challenges a mean school
authority and demonstrates kind and generous behavior as she overcomes
the loss of her father in war.