Big monsters, big boats and even bigger rocks (headed straight for Earth) may rule the cinematic roost right now, but for much of the early 20th century, the "Little Tramp" was the undisputed box-office champ.

From his first onscreen appearance in 1914's "Making a Living" to his retirement from movies more than 50 years later, Charlie Chaplin made nearly 100 short and feature-length films.Many featured his trademark character, the beloved mustachioed "everyman" who wore a battered black derby hat and a black bow tie, who constantly twirled his bamboo cane and was referred to as the "Little Tramp."

Chaplin's trademark character officially debuted in the 1913 short comedy "Kid Auto Races at Venice," but didn't receive his name until he appeared the following year in "The Tramp."

Interviewed by the French newspaper Le Petit Provencal in 1931, Chaplin described the character as "a victim of bad circumstances." But instead of teaching audiences to give in to despair, the Tramp instructs them in how to be resilient in the face of adversity.

"He refuses to accept defeat," Chaplin told the French press. "When his hopes, his dreams, his aspirations vanish, he only shrugs his shoulders and turns on his heels."

The "Little Tramp" films are just some of the works included in "The Chaplin Collection: Between Laughter and Tears," a retrospective festival of 17 shorts and feature films that either star or were directed by the actor, who died in 1977.

Local screenings of the "Chaplin Collection" films began Friday at the Tower Theatre and will continue daily through June 11. (See complete titles and playdates in accompanying list.)

Though much of Chaplin's film work is in the public domain, the bulk of his best pictures (including 1925's "The Gold Rush," 1931's "City Lights" and 1940's "The Great Dictator") have not been shown theatrically for years.

The rights to those films and others are held by the Chaplin Estate, which has finally reissued them through the New York-based Interama distribution company.

Interama also acquired new 35mm prints, and that is what audiences will see at the Tower.

Since December, the film retrospective has been touring the country, often playing to sold-out houses. In fact, demand is so heavy for the movies that there are plans for the "Chaplin Collection" tour to continue for some five years in the United States alone.

Nicole Jouve, Interama's president and general manager, said Chaplin's works are, naturally, being embraced by longtime fans - but also by a new generation that appreciates his genius. "It is an honor to be able to give these films back to the general public - to let them finally see them again on a movie screen, as they were meant to be seen."

According to Jouve, whose company primarily distribute classic French films and documentaries, the Chaplin Estate was adamant about having the films seen in numbers - to give filmgoers the opportunity to witness the breadth of his brilliant career.

"There's such charm and beauty to his work, an intelligence that still isn't completely appreciated," she said. "Chaplin was such an incredible craftsman. But it's the warmth and sweetness of his characters that audiences have always responded to."

Chaplin's legacy also lives on today, through contemporary filmmakers he inspired. Woody Allen, whose messy personal life has echoed Chaplin's, paid tribute to the legendary film comedian with the final scene of his 1979 comedy "Manhattan."

But Chaplin played other characters besides the Little Tramp, and he was much more than just a one-character performer. He also wrote and directed several of his films, and even composed the musical score.

"Smile," the song Chaplin wrote for 1936's "Modern Times," has become a pop standard. (Films in "The Charlie Chaplin Collection" also feature remastered soundtracks, all of them with original scores composed by Chaplin.)

"He did almost everything on his movies - he was kind of a control freak that way," said Greg Tanner, programmer for the Tower Theatre.

Tanner is promising several surprises for the Tower's Chaplin Collections screenings. Local silent film historian Hunter Hale will introduce and comment on several of the movies. And the silent films will feature live accompaniment by keyboardist Blaine Gale.

For showtimes, ticket prices or other information about the Chaplin Collection presentation, contact the Tower Theatre at 297-4040.