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In Claremore, Oklahoma, in the early 1900s, cowboy Curly enjoys his morning horseback ride along a corn field belonging to Aunt Eller and her niece, Laurey Williams. When Curly arrives at their farmhouse, he presumes that Laurey will accept his invitation to the box social dance that night, so he asks Aunt Eller to join them. However, Laurey pretends to be uninterested and teases Curly that he has no appropriate transportation. Curly tries to entice Laurey by describing a surrey with silk fringe and red wheels that would be pulled by a team of snow-white horses. Laurey is so enamored with Curly's imaginary surrey that she becomes frustrated when his description concludes, and instead accepts the invitation of her surly farmhand, Jud Fry. Curly is offended, but still intends to take Aunt Eller. Later, Laurey privately admits to Aunt Eller that she would prefer Curly's company, but Jud refuses to let her out of her commitment. Aunt Eller then goes to the train station to meet Will Parker, a local cowboy returning by train from Kansas City with paper lanterns for the party. Will is elated because he has earned enough money in the city to marry his sweetheart, Ado Annie Carnes, whose father insists that any suitor possess at least fifty dollars. Will displays a risqué kaleidoscope purchased as a gift for Ado Annie's father, and then regales Aunt Eller and his friends with tales of the modern conveniences he experienced in the city, including telephones, indoor privies and gas-powered buggies. Ado Annie, meanwhile, has joined traveling salesman Ali Hakim on his wagon, and they stop to visit Laurey at the bathing pond. Ado Annie confesses to being an unrepentant flirt and that she has fallen in love Ali. Ali later succeeds in selling a bottle of exotic-sounding smelling salts to Laurey with the guarantee that they will help her make decisions. When Ado Annie learns that Ali is not interested in marriage moments before Will rides up and announces his intention to marry her, she is unable to resist Will's affection. Just then, dozens of buggies arrive with partygoers who are stopping at the farm for a respite from the road. Among them are Curly and his red-haired date, Gertie Cummings. When Laurey hears Gertie's horse-like laugh, she dramatically assures her friends that she is not jealous, but she still sheds a tear. When Ado Annie tells her father, Andrew Carnes, that Will has spent his earnings on gifts for her, Andrew cancels the engagement. A traditionalist, Andrew then insists that Ali marry Ado Annie after she reveals that the salesman has made romantic overtures. However, Andrew must aim the barrel of his shotgun at Ali to convince him. Laurey is too distracted by Gertie's presence to acknowledge Ado Annie's news of her engagement. Instead, Laurey picks a fight with Gertie over the merits of their respective gooseberry tarts. After Aunt Eller breaks them up, Laurey lingers in the peach orchard with Curly. They affectionately argue about who is in love with whom, and muse that they are the subject of rumors. Their romantic idyll ends when Laurey reluctantly admits that she cannot get out of her date with Jud. Curly then goes to see Jud in the smokehouse. Having assessed Jud as self-pitying and potentially dangerous, Curly uses subtle sarcasm to prod the vulnerable farmhand by imagining aloud how townfolk might mourn Jud's death. Jud suffers from feelings of class distinction, and explains that if he is wronged, he may take the lesson of another spurned hired hand who killed his faithless lover and her family by burning down their house. Despite a further warning from Jud, Curly declares his romantic intentions toward Laurey, and urges Jud to reform his unhealthy lifestyle. After an enraged Jud fires a warning gunshot into the ceiling, Curly proves his own marksmanship by shooting out a knothole in the cabin wall. The sound of gunfire draws a crowd that is dispersed by Aunt Eller after she ensures that the men are unharmed. Afterward, Laurey hears Jud shout that she had better not change her mind. Jud then attempts to buy a kaleidoscope with a hidden switchblade from Ali, but the concerned peddler has none in stock. After everyone leaves, Laurey feels torn between the two men. She sits in a rocking chair on the porch and takes a whiff of her smelling salts, then asks the elixir to help her decide between the two men. Laurey then closes her eyes and dreams: Laurey and Curly's romance leads to a wedding, but when her veil is lifted, she is horrified to discover that she has married Jud rather than Curly. Laurey berates herself and tries to embrace Curly, but he withdraws from her. Laurey then attempts to flee from Jud, but finds only a saloon filled with menacing dancehall women. Laurey is trapped there and, after being forced into Jud's arms, is then compelled to dance with the women. She soon escapes outside into a storm where she is rescued by Curly, who shoots Jud repeatedly. Instead of dying, an unharmed and powerful Jud attacks Curly and strangles him. Curly dies as a tornado touches ground nearby, and Jud carries Laurey away. Laurey awakens and is startled to discover Jud in front of her, telling her it is time to leave. [An Intermission divides the story at this point.] As the rest of the wagons head for the party, Jud lingers behind and confesses to Laurey his obsession with her. Laurey pulls away when he tries to embrace her, then grabs the reins and incites the horses to bolt. The horses run out of control for miles until a train frightens them. Jud calms the animals, but Laurey again grabs the reins and rides away without him. Everyone else is already at the party, which is hosted by the Skidmores. A brawl breaks out between the farmers and the ranchers and cowboys, who have been battling for land in the territory, but the fight abruptly ends when Aunt Eller fires a shot into the air. After the dance, Aunt Eller begins a charity auction for dinner baskets, the proceeds of which will benefit the school. Laurey arrives and is the last person to donate her basket. Will, meanwhile, confronts Ali, who conceives of a plan to get out of his engagement to Ado Annie by buying the gifts Will bought her, thereby replenishing Will's engagement fund. An angry Jud arrives moments later on foot and adds to Will's total by buying the kaleidoscope, which, unknown to Will, contains a switchblade. The auction winds down moments later to the hampers belonging to Ado Annie and Laurey. Will heedlessly bids all he has on Ado Annie's basket, forgetting that this will again ruin his chances of marrying her, but a desperate Ali saves him by outbidding him. Laurey's basket is the final item, and Jud outbids everyone by two-bits. He and Curly then get into a fierce bidding war during which Curly sells his saddle, his horse and his gun in order to beat Jud. After several tense moments, Aunt Eller declares that Curly is the victor. Jud then draws Curly aside to show him the kaleidoscope, intending to murder him. However, Ali sees what he is doing and warns Aunt Eller, who then purposely distracts Curly. While Will and Ado Annie wrestle with the concept of fidelity, Jud confronts Laurey and accuses her of snobbery. When she fires him, he warns her that she will never be rid of him. Later, Laurey admits to Curly that Jud has frightened her, and he promises to protect her. Curly then proposes marriage and Laurey accepts. Always the dreamer, Curly envisions starting a family as the Oklahoma territory earns its statehood. Will finally convinces Ado Annie to marry him by out-kissing her in front of Ali, whose kisses before his departure very nearly stole her heart again. Curly soon herds cattle for the last time before becoming a farmer, and he and Laurey marry. While Laurey and Curly pack for their honeymoon, Ali returns with Gertie, who announces that they too are newlyweds. Ali privately admits to Ado Annie that he only married Gertie after her father threatened him. As part of the wedding party's celebratory shivaree, Curly and Laurey stand atop a haystack while their friends toss up dolls as emblems of their future family. When a vengeful Jud sets fire to the haystack, Laurey and Curly are forced to jump off to save their lives. Curly purposely lands on top of Jud, and accidentally kills him when Jud falls on his own knife. Since the entire town is present, including Cord Elam, the local federal marshal, and Andrew, who is the local judge, Aunt Eller demands an immediate trial. Andrew finds Curly not guilty by reason of self-defense. Thereby cleared, Curly and Laurey leave for their honeymoon in a beautiful fringed surrey.