Superman 1.74: Frequently Asked Questions

Q:  Can you read my mind?

A:  To be honest, I’d rather not, but if you insist, I don’t suppose there’s much I can do about it.

Yesterday, we were talking about Superman and Lois’ night flight through the sky, which is beautiful and puzzling, and the closest we’re going to get in this movie to a real love scene. And now I’ve come to the spoken-word musical number, which means I’m going to have to start getting more critical in a hurry.

I mean, do I have to say that this part of the scene gets a mixed reaction from audiences, or does everybody else just hate this as much as I do? In my opinion, “Can You Read My Mind” is the worst part of the film, and it comes smack in the middle of one of the best parts.

Now, I’m not coming at this as some square incel troll who can’t stand having girly stuff like dance numbers in the middle of his he-man superhero movie. I love musical numbers more than I can express. My entire extended childhood was and still is dominated by my love for The Muppet Show, which took hold of my consciousness as of age 5 and permanently wired me to value funny, surprising and visually kinetic musical numbers wherever I can get one.

And that very much includes my taste in superhero media. I love the musical numbers that pop up in Legion and The Umbrella Academy, and I’ve watched Baby Groot’s brilliant dance number at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 more times than anything else produced by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you want to put some song-and-dance into any given superhero film, I am here for it.

And yet, I hate “Can You Read My Mind” like I hate cancer and World War II. I think it’s likely that you do as well, so let’s see if we can unpack what’s gone wrong here.

Well, the obvious place to start is the fact that it’s a spoken-word piece by Margot Kidder, rather than an actual song. The lyrics, written to accompany John Williams’ love theme, express how Lois feels as she glides above the clouds with her superdate, with a special focus on her low self-esteem, compared to the good-looking space monster in the pilot’s seat.

The original idea was that they’d have ’70s pop star Toni Tennille sing the song, but director Richard Donner didn’t like having somebody other than Margot Kidder expressing Lois’ inner thoughts.

Here’s the backstage story, as told by Kidder in the book that accompanied the Superman: The Music box set.

“Donner called and said, ‘Margot, you gotta do this song; can you sing?’ and I said, ‘No, not really.’ But he said, ‘Well, I want you to go over to Johnny Williams’ house.’ So I go and John has Oscars and Grammys and Emmys on every square inch of mantle or tabletop, all over the house, and he gave me these lyrics and I tried to sing, and his face just fell. And he called Donner and said, ‘She can’t sing; she’s not going to sing this!’ But Donner just kept insisting, so I took the music and practiced.

“A week later, they had me come into a little studio in Manhattan to record. So I sang my heart out, and I got louder and I thought, ‘Oh, I must be doing great, nobody’s saying anything!’ And finally Donner came up and said, ‘Um, sweetie… could you talk it?’ They brought Chris Reeve in so that I could talk it to him, to get the mood right. It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my entire career! But I thought the final scene was beautiful.”

So what we have is Kidder taking song lyrics that weren’t designed to be normal human speech, and trying to say them out loud, as naturally as she can. And it just doesn’t work as dialogue. The biggest stretch is probably the part where she walks up and tells somebody, “Will you look at me, quivering, like a little girl, shivering,” which is a low point in American cinema.

Because, let’s face it, the lyrics are not helpful. They’re all about how small and worthless Lois feels in this moment, which is the opposite of what’s happening in the scene.

The point of this five-minute-long sequence is that Superman is sharing his power with Lois — allowing her to experience something that nobody born on Earth ever has — and he’s doing it because he adores her, and thinks that she’s the most special person he’s ever met. But the song lyrics dwell on how insignificant she thinks that she is.

Can you read my mind?
Do you know what it is you do to me?
Don’t know who you are
Just a friend from another star.

Here I am, like a kid out of school
Holding hands with a god, I’m a fool
Will you look at me, quivering,
Like a little girl, shivering,
You can see right through me.

Can you read my mind?
Can you picture the things I’m thinking of?
Wondering why you are
All of the wonderful things you are

You can fly, you belong to the sky
You and I could belong to each other.
If you need a friend, I’m the one to fly to
If you need to be loved, here I am.
Read my mind!

The narrative purpose of a musical number is to express the character’s feelings, in a way that they couldn’t express through dialogue and action. In this case, the feelings that are being expressed are not appropriate for this moment of satisfaction and triumph.

And it doesn’t even rhyme very well, which you’d think would be the bare minimum for inserting unnecessary song lyrics into a scene that was perfectly fine before Toni Tennille came along. They rhyme “who you are” with “star” in the first verse, and in the second verse, they use “why you are” and then can’t come up with any other rhyme than “wonderful things you are”. I’m pretty sure they could have done something with the word “far”, if they’d bothered to take the time.

When producer Michael Thau was putting together the 2000 Director’s Cut, he asked Donner if they could cut “Can You Read My Mind”. Donner said no, which is just another reason why director’s cuts are not helpful. So we’re stuck with this, I’m afraid. Luckily, this is the last example of a song being shoehorned inappropriately into a superhero movie, so it’s nice that we’ve got it out of the way so soon.

Tomorrow:
Why doesn’t Lois realize that
Clark Kent is Superman?
1.75: The Other Stupid Question.

Chapters
Movie list

— Danny Horn

19 thoughts on “Superman 1.74: Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Thoughts I had while watching this scene:
    1. She’s no David Selby.
    2. I wonder if “Quentin’s Theme” is on YouTube. (It is.)
    3. The flying sequence is too long.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. David Selby could never have played Lois Lane. He’s much too tall.

      For years I kept mixing Margot Kidder up with Margaret Trudeau. Two Canadian women with similar first names, born a month apart, similar vocal quality, similar eyes, similar mental health issues, similarly brilliant wit. Also, Margaret Trudeau was like Margot Kidder in that bad things happened when she was called upon to sing. Margot Kidder’s lack of musicality gave us this execrable scene, Margaret Trudeau’s attempt to sing at a state banquet in Caracas in 1976 caused a diplomatic crisis between Canada and Venezuela.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. The only real criticism I have of this scene is that it is indeed too long. They spend an uncomfortably long time gazing into each other eyes, as Superman grins madly. It felt like overkill for a first date. Is there a term for something like “romantic overload”? Because I would have expected Lois to feel that way here. Perhaps Donner was a little too satisfied with the technical marvel of making two people fly together, which they pulled off very well, to be willing to cut down the number of shots in this scene during the editing phase.

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  2. I believe the lyricist was Leslie Briscusse, who wrote songs for DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, GOODBYE MR CHIPS (with Williams), WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, SCROOGE, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bricusse collaborated with Anthony Newley, writing “What Kind of Fool Am I” and “Pure Imagination” and the lyrics for “Goldfinger”. Not great lyrics, but they rhymed!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Toni Tenille has a bad reputation for doing bubble gum, but she’s a very good vocalist. She and her sisters got their start at Muscle Shoals. Too bad she didn’t get this gig.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. When I first saw this in the theater in 1978, I was twelve years old. Even at that young age, I knew, at the moment that Lois started to speak these words, that it was because Margot Kidder couldn’t sing. It’s such an obviously terrible solution to the problem, and yet we’re stuck with it for eternity.

    And like you, Danny, I grew up with a deep appreciation of the musical numbers of “The Muppet Show,” though I can’t say I was as obsessed as you (can anyone?). One of my favorites is the brief but memorable appearance of the Singing Cheeses (“So you met someone who set you back on your heels/ Gouda, Gouda!”).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My YouTube just recommended “The Carol of the Bells” performed by Beaker, the Swedish Chef, & Animal. In keeping with the season. 🔔

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    1. When I first saw Superman – it was December 1978 in Des Moines, Iowa – I remember thinking Lois’s “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence was somehow just plain dumb. I didn’t like it (but I didn’t hate it), but I could not articulate the reasons. I don’t recall ever hearing the Maureen McGovern music video, but I do really like this version. It works as a song and the montage of scenes makes the whole song even more emotionally impactful, in my opinion. The tender moment when Lois is crying and Clark is moving closer to her – taking off his glasses – that was powerful.

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  5. Besides everything you’ve stated here, Danny, another fundamental misstep is that a love scene, if it’s going to have a song, must either:

    A) Be a duet between the two people in love, or

    B) If only one character or the other is singing, it must be out loud, either to themselves when they are alone, or a declaration to the loved one that they are hearing and responding to in real time (See “Wonder of Wonders” in Fiddler on the Roof, for example.)

    In either scenario, the conceit of singing your feelings is supported by your partner in the scene, if they’re there, or you are talking to yourself about your deep emotional state. That is, every person onstage/screen is involved in and hearing the music.

    But when you have only one person in a love scene who is hearing the music, it takes the audience out of what’s happening. Rather than showing an emotional connection it becomes a performance that one of the performers isn’t in on, and splits your attention. You aren’t caught up in the clouds with Lois as she soars into strata she never dreamed she could reach–you start wondering “Well, CAN he? Does he hear her right now or what? Shouldn’t he be responding in some way? Or is she just, like, doing open mic out of nowhere for no reason?”

    And man, they’re called lyrics and not lines for a reason! They’re supposed to be sung to convey states of mind, not read aloud to convey facts.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. A “Can You Read My Mind” thinks scene MIGHT have worked better if it was mutual. If, say, Lois and Clark were having an awkward meal together, with him (silently) wondering if she could tell what he felt about her, while she’s looking longingly at a picture of Superman in the newspaper and asking her own question. They could both end with the “Read my mind” line. It would show a more vulnerable, “human” side of him and play up how Clark is competing with himself for Lois’s affections. Irony.
    If nothing else, they might have improved the lyrics.

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  7. I don’t even know where or why the idea of mind reading comes into anything related to Superman (granted, my experience in 1978 with Superman was mostly from Superfriends).

    I almost thought this post might become a deep dive into Superman’s tried-and-abandoned mind reading ability from some forgotten early years, but Googling reveals that mind reading seems to strictly be in this movie’s imagination.

    Mind *control* is there in the comics (similar to Jedi mind tricks), but that’s it.

    The only conclusive instances of mind reading in the Super-verse seem to be in Lois & Clark (Kryptonian to Kryptonian) and Smallville (temporarily given by Jor-El), which are still in the future in 1978, needless to say.

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  8. I think Bricusse created the whole mind reading idea in the lyrics because Lois was thinking this, not speaking it out loud. He has Lois wonder about what other powers Superman has. Perhaps Bricusse was wondering, too. He knows that Superman is alien and flies, but he doesn’t seem to have a very good idea of who Lois is or even what is going on in this scene, hence the quivering, shivering Lois.
    Maybe they should have gotten Tim Rice to write the lyrics instead.

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  9. Well, so I’m the one exception to the whole world here? I didn’t think Lois’s mental monologue ruined the scene or disfigured the movie when it first came out; I recognized that she was just dropping into poetry, not attempting naturalistic dialogue. Danny and the others here have given cogent reasons why I SHOULD hate it, but I still think it’s kind of sweet. Down on the ground, she’s been presented as the tough one and Superman/Clark as the tender one, so maybe it serves a good function for her to admit, in her private, poetic mind, to equally squishy feelings for him that she’ll never admit to aloud.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Personally I like the poetry bit, too. I mean I agree some other things they could have done, but I liked it as it was. I figured it was free form poetry and the shivering bit was just about how so exciting it was to fly and to just be there with Superman.

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    2. I agree. It shifts the emphasis of the movie from Superman to Lois for the rest of this scene, causing us to think about how she views him. Before this, Lois has been a whirling dervish of activity and we’ve had little idea of the state of her mind, at least until the balcony scene. This takes us into her inner world. Yes, the inner-monologue poetry is cheesy and maybe clumsy, but the shift to focusing on Lois is a welcome change.

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