Idyllic imagery with dogs barking, chickens clucking, and trees rustling in the wind introduce the setting. Judy Garland can be found singing in the shower or helping in the kitchen, alongside the faithful Esme (Marjorie Main). After their hired help pulls out expectantly, the brunt of the work falls on the industrious Jane Falbury (Garland), who is not about to let their crop go unpacked, even if she has to do it herself.
The local store clerk Orville Wingait (Eddie Bracken) has harbored feelings for Jane since youth, and it’s all but settled that one day they will be betrothed. Once more the actor plays a variation on the small-town schmuck he always seemed to do for Preston Sturges in his heyday.
Except for, this time, he’s constantly being scolded and pushed around by his exacting father Jasper (Ray Collins). The elder Wingait pulls some strings to get Ms. Falbury a tractor so she can work her land without any assistance. Being the proud individual she is, Jane’s not about to let the debt go unpaid. She’s not married yet and so she’s not seeking out unsolicited favors.
The mirthful “Howdy Neighbor (Happy Harvest)” is an ode to all farmers toiling for an honest day’s work. Waving on locals with her rousing tune, Garland decked out in bibbed overalls piloting the tractor, looks the picture of a Midwestern farm girl. She’s grown up a tad since her days as Dorothy the Kansas farm girl. You would think that, apart from the marriage proposal that might be coming her way, Jane’s settled into her life.
Inevitably, something breaks into her newfound reverie. There would be no mother otherwise. Her preening sister, Abigail (Gloria DeHaven), bred at finishing schools and a little too prissy for her farm roots, comes back bringing in tow a whole troop of performers.
She’s promised them the use of her family’s barn as a home base for their roadshow. It’s just that she never thought to give her family any notice. Jane’s in for a colossal surprise when Joe Ross (Gene Kelly) and his players move in on the land as if they own the place. His cohorts include the rowdy goofball Herb (Phil Silvers) and the slightly entitled professional actor (Hans Conried), who was hired on to star opposite Abigail.
To mollify her sister’s schoolgirl pleading, Jane finally relents letting them stay, if only they pull their weight around by helping with the daily chores. Kelly gives the gang a rousing pep talk in the kitchen after the dishes have been cleared with “Dig-Dig-Dig Dig For Your Dinner.”
It can’t be that hard. After all, many hands are meant to make light work. But Jane doesn’t have a bunch of cowhands, and the out-of-towners make a shambles of their daily tasks. Namely, Herb with his typical antics not only losing a basket full of the day’s egg crop but also managing to completely decimate Mrs. Falbury’s pristine new tractor.
With the new lodgers, there’s also an obvious conflict with the town at-large. The beloved Country Dance with rich traditions in the community’s historical society is their pride and joy. Nevertheless, the town has long forbidden theatrical performances in their backwoods society since eons ago for some unknowable, arbitrary reason, aside from the fact that they are all uncultured country bumpkins, of course.
The culture clash commences as the unwelcomed outsiders bring their hot jazz to a prim and proper barn dancing affair, with Jane caught between the factions. Her boyfriend and huffing father on one end, and the magnetic Joe on the other.
Summer Stock agreeably gives itself over to the urges of the music, culminating in a giddy dance-off between Kelly and Garland breaking any of the tension they might have on-screen for a momentary jolt of peppy All-American goodness. They’re having a grand time together, indeed, we all are, until we must return to the mechanisms of the storyline.
The pressures of Orville’s marital intentions are now full force even as Abigail quarrels with Joe over their show as he tries to bring all the pieces together. Garland belting out a love song as Kelly sits unseen in a chair, taking it in on the porch, about sums up the dynamic.
The poles are drifting apart in the form of Orville and Abigail, even as the lovers in the middle begin to feel their own form of electricity. If the film is to right itself, the change must happen right there. I’ll allow you to fill in the rest.
A moment that many remember, for good reason, is so very simple. Kelly stands on the stage, alone, lights low, contemplating, and in those moments, he integrates the sounds around him. Soon the creak of a floorboard, an old newspaper, melded with his own whistling, taps, and a few meager piano notes, take on a life all their own.
He synthesizes them into a rhythm and out of those comes a primitive dance, seemingly built from the ground up right in front of our eyes. I’m not sure if people called Kelly a genius at this point, we still had yet to get An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, but wowee he’s sure struck on something.
And what truly reveals itself is not only his cinematic charm, in such a moment, but the visible relish he seems to be having with every successive revelation. Whether he liked it or not or whether it was easy for him or not, for a suspended instance, we believe we could do this too and get the same joy.
Garland’s most iconic number “Get Happy” finds her dressed in fancier duds in a sequence that was actually shot much later and finds a trimmer and fittingly livier singer delivering one of her trademark anthems. It was the end of an era. Garland would agree to terminate her contract at MGM, and she and Gene Kelly would never work on another picture together. I gather that’s show business. It’s not quite the same as a farm.