George Bailey, the good-guy banker in Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, was inspired by a real-life good-guy: A.P. Giannini, the man who invented banking for the ordinary person.
Giannini’s life story is one of entrepreneurial legend. In the late 1800s, when banks lent only to the rich, he saw an opportunity to extend banking services to the broader market. Of course, at the time most people had little equity on which to base a loan. So Giannini based his loans not on wealth but on character. His little bank for the ordinary guy revolutionized the banking industry, not only in the US but globally, and grew into…Bank of America.
In 1906, this policy was put to the ultimate test. The San Francisco earthquake wiped out a large part of the city, and left thousands homeless and destitute. Giannini did the unthinkable: when all other banks were closed and his own bank building destroyed, he reopened his bank in the street, operating from a plank of wood across two barrels, making loans to strangers with no credit and no identification. “Giannini made loans on a handshake to those interested in rebuilding. Years later, he would recount that every single loan was repaid.”
In this clip from It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey argues for extending credit to ordinary working people, just as A.P. Giannini once tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the savings & loan bank he originally worked at to do just that. When the bank declined, he started Bank of Italy, later renamed Bank of America.