Modern Times is often hailed as one of Chaplin's greatest achievements, and it remains one of his most popular films.
French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merlau-Ponty named their journal, Les Temps modernes, after it.
The film did not perform as well commercially at the US box office but returns in other countries meant it was profitable.
The iconic depiction of Chaplin working frantically to keep up with an assembly line inspired later comedy routines including Disney's Der Fuehrer's Face (Donald Duck alternately assembling artillery shells and saluting portraits of Adolf Hitler) and an episode of I Love Lucy titled "Job Switching" (Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up with an ever-increasing volume of chocolate candies, eventually stuffing them in their mouths, hats, and blouses). The opening of a fantasy sequence in the film, in which the unemployed factory worker trips over a foot stool upon entering the living room of his "dream home" with the Gamin, inspired a similar opening to The Dick Van Dyke Show.
This was Chaplin's first overtly political-themed film, and its unflattering portrayal of industrial society generated controversy in some quarters upon its initial release.
The film exhibits notable similarities to a 1931 French film directed by René Clair entitled À nous la liberté (Liberty for Us) — the assembly line sequence is a clear instance. The German film company Tobis Film sued Chaplin following the film's release to no avail. They sued again after World War II (considered revenge for Chaplin's anti-Nazi statements in The Great Dictator). This time, they settled with Chaplin out of court. Clair, a huge admirer of Chaplin who was flattered that the film icon would imitate him, was deeply embarrassed that Tobis Film would sue Chaplin and was never part of the case.
The film did attract criticism for being almost completely silent, despite the movie industry having long since embraced the talking picture. Chaplin famously feared that the mystery and romanticism of the tramp character would be ruined if he spoke, and feared it would alienate his fans in non-English speaking territories. His future films, however, would be fully fledged "talkies" – although without the character of the Little Tramp.
Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance has written of the reception and legacy of this classic comedy, "Modern Times is perhaps more meaningful now than at any time since its first release. The twentieth-century theme of the film, farsighted for its time—the struggle to eschew alienation and preserve humanity in a modern, mechanized world—profoundly reflects issues facing the twenty-first century. The Tramp’s travails in Modern Times and the comedic mayhem that ensues should provide strength and comfort to all who feel like helpless cogs in a world beyond control. Through its universal themes and comic inventiveness, Modern Times remains one of Chaplin’s greatest and most enduring works. Perhaps more important, it is the Tramp’s finale, a tribute to Chaplin’s most beloved character and the silent-film era he commanded for a generation."
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies - #81
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs - #33
- AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - #78