On a radiant summer morning in Indian Territory not long after the turn of the century, Aunt Eller sits on her porch churning butter and looking out over her farmstead. Curly, a local ranch hand, comes to call. Curly and Eller's niece, Laurey, have a lot in common - both are equally smitten with the other, and both are too proud and stubborn to admit it. When Curly grandly offers to take Laurey to the box social that evening, Laurey claims that he can't escort her in style and refuses to believe that he has rented a classy rig for the occasion. Jud Fry, Laurey's hired hand, settles the matter by announcing that he will take her to the social and because she is scared of Jud, who has a morose, vindictive temperament, she is too frightened to turn him down. Curly invites Aunt Eller to ride with him.
Laurey's friend, Ado Annie, is caught between two fellows too. Will Parker has just returned from Kansas City where he earned $50 in a rodeo - the exact sum Ado Annie's father, Andrew Carnes, told Will he had to come up with if he wanted to marry her. However, during Will's absence Ado Annie has become transfixed by the Persian peddler man, Ali Hakim, whose sales pitches always leave her swooning. Ado Annie may not know which way to turn but her father does: Will, since he already spent the $50 on wedding gifts for Annie and technically no longer has the cash, has lost his chance at marriage - while Ali Hakim has been so forward with Annie that nothing short of a shotgun wedding will do!
Laurey is confused about her love for Curly, and about Jud, of whom she is terrified, but has used his invitation just to make Curly jealous. After a short reconciliation between the two, Curly goes to see Jud in his smokehouse. Curly paints a beautiful picture of just how popular Jud would be - at his own funeral and there is an angry confrontation about Laurey. Feeling mocked, alone now in his room, Jud confronts himself, his lonely fantasies, his bleak existence that fills him with anger and violence.
Laurey still wants to clear her mind between Curly and Jud. Her girl friends ridicule her and offer their own homely advice; she drifts into a dream - a ballet sequence in which she is to marry Curly, but he is killed by Jud, who abducts her. As she wakens, both men arrive, and Jud hauls her off to the party, leaving Curly dejected.
At the box social that night lots of men bid for Laurey's hamper but, as the bidding rises, so does the tension as Jud and Curly square off. Curly sells his saddle, his horse and then even his gun to raise enough cash to buy the hamper and the right to escort Laurey, which frustrates and angers Jud. When Jud corners Laurey in the barn later on, her frightened calls for help bring Curly to her side. Jud runs off, and finally, Laurey and Curly confess their love for each other. Ali Hakim, still trying to manoeuvre his way out of marrying Ado Annie, contrives to bid $50 for all the gifts Will bought in Kansas City. With cash in hand, and a few rules in mind, Will approaches Ado Annie again, and this time they set the date.
Three weeks later, Laurey and Curly are married. Gertie Cummings, an annoying flirt who couldn't get her hands on Curly, has managed to also snare a husband - Ali Hakim. Will and Ado Annie are hitched as well and everyone is celebrating. The wedding festivities pall, however, when Jud Fry stumbles in, uninvited, unwelcome and drunk. He gets into a fight with Curly and, in the ensuing melée, the drunken Jud falls on his own knife and is killed. Curly's friends don't want him to have to spend his wedding night in jail and so, a trial is quickly held on the spot and Curly is acquitted. With their friends and loved ones waving them on, Curly and Laurey drive off on their honeymoon, "in a surrey with the fringe on top".