Joel McCrea did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Tom Jeffers in The Palm Beach Story.
Joel McCrea is a common leading man to be found in romantic comedies from the period, and is a good fit for the genre although he takes a bit of a different approach than who is probably the romantic comedy champion Cary Grant. Grant usually played characters who were the schemers and his performance therefore tended to be devious in some way. That is not the case for McCrea's characters who instead roped along by someone else. That was the case for his character in The More the Merrier and it is the case here as well. His character of Tom Jeffers is quite taken aback from the beginning of the film when he finds out his wife Geraldine "Gerry" Jeffers (Claudette Colbert) has decided to leave him since they are in somewhat dire financial straights and she believes they will be better off separated.
McCrea has a very natural charm and takes on a very unassuming style of his performance. McCrea does not go for an overt flamboyance with his work rather staying very down to earth in his performance. In doing so McCrea makes his character's very likable which is important for the role of Tom Jeffers as we must instantly sympathize with his problematic situation involving his particularly flaky wife. McCrea is quite enjoyable in the early scenes given just enough of a comedic spin in his portrayal of Tom's disbelief at his wife's sudden desire for a separation. McCrea, along with Colbert, are quite together because they both really know how to sell the material. They go with the absurdity just enough to make it funny, while still making their characters people rather than just some strange caricatures.
McCrea despite being the male lead actually gets a bit shaft during the film. For a very long stretch in the the middle of the film, after Gerry has taken off, McCrea entirely disappears from the film.The film instead solely focuses on Colbert's various exploits and we don't catch up with McCrea again until after Gerry has gotten them involved with a plot of mistaken identities involving two rich siblings. Gerry pretends that Tom is her brother as she schemes to marry the rich man, despite Tom's objections. McCrea is quite hilarious in these scenes as he plays Tom as basically wanting nothing to do with the plot he's in. McCrea is very entertaining as he makes Tom's particularly ticked off reactions extremely funny, and manages to make up for his lost time rather admirably.
McCrea is a nice fit for the lead of a Preston Sturges film as he fits the tone incredibly well, and knows exactly how to delivers the lines. Unfortunately in this case McCrea just is not given all that much to do as the film seems more like a showcase for Colbert than it is for him. McCrea may be the lead but only barely so. McCrea still does excel with the little he is given to do, but it's surprisingly little here. I have to say that I could have gone for more of him as I always liked any scene he was in, and I would not have minded seeing Tom's travels in addition to Gerry's. While it may not technically be anything overly substantial this is a very charming and rather amusing bit of work from McCrea.