I never get tired of this fascinating Italian-American Horatio Alger story. My interest began several years ago when I discovered that Bank of America was originally the Bank of Italy, started by a young man named Amedeo Giannini, the son of Italian immigrants. In my curiosity to discover more about this fact I soon learned of one of the most fascinating and generous men I've never heard of. While gathering all these bits and pieces of information I had no idea that I would discover the man who would turn out to be the inspiration for the character of George Bailey in Frank Capra's classic holiday film, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Amedeo Giannini started the Bank of Italy in a converted saloon in San Francisco at 9 am on Monday, October 17, 1904. On the first day, 28 deposits totalled $8,780. The equivilant of $37,486 today. When an earthquake struck in 1907, he ran his bank from a plank in the street. Ironically, the word “bank” is from the Italian word “banca”, meaning a bench or counter. The news quickly spread about his commitment to previously underserved members of the community such as the working class, immigrant populations, and small businesses. Giannini changed the name to Bank of America in 1928 and by 1929, the bank was strong enough to withstand the Great Depression stock crash. Matter of fact, at the height of the depression in 1932, Bank of America financed the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the early days of Hollywood, motion pictures were huge risk. Many lenders felt the fledgling medium was a fad and a sure money-loser. But not Giannini. In 1923, he created a motion-picture loan division, which backed such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks and Frank Capra, and financed hundreds of films, including such classics as West Side Story, Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia. Frank Capra was so impressed with Giannini's humility and generosity that he based the main character "George Bailey" in his 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life on him. When Walt Disney couldn't get a loan to complete the first full-length animated film, Bank of America stepped in and lent Disney the $1.7 million he needed to finish Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.