Garbo was good in 'Ninotchka', but I think Ina Claire steals the show in spades. I hadn't realized how good she is here, and she made few films (I just looked them up, and don't know if any are worthwhile, never heard of any except 'Stage Door Canteen', where she appears as 'Herself', but I can't remember that.) This, despite a hairstyle which I find unattractive in the extreme, even though the stylist (just hers, mind you) gets special billing. I thought Garbo's hair was often overly contrived as well, it looks better when it's very smooth. She does sometimes look magnificent in her Soviet attire, although there are a few shots in which she looks distinctly older (though not at all unattractive). I was surprised at how good I thought Melvyn Douglas was this time around, though. A friend told me he'd heard that the famous 'laughing scene' was dubbed, but I don't know about that. I think it comes across very badly by now (has sort of a Marx Brothers feel to it), but must have been thrilling at the time.
Primarily, I see Garbo as actually 'working with the other actors' when I watch this--esp. in her scenes alone with Claire, who is pitch-perfect as this totally fatuous Grand Duchess ('Swana' is a genius name-choice)--and doesn't dominate in the way she had in a certain way before. It works because of the actors and the sets and costumes are beautiful (this is very good with the volume turned all the way down, as some of Garbo's lines, in particular, sound ridiculous when spoken), and it's snappily paced.
Although none of this makes me like it, except for Ina Claire's moments (and there are many more than I'd remembered.) I do like 'Queen Christina' very much, whether it's objectively good or bad doesn't matter a whit to me, it's one of the 'pure Garbo-movies' as such, even if its greatness doesn't go beyond that. She's much better at
her facing down of the commoners on the palace steps
than she is at play-acting a socialist, or even enjoying just being more 'social' with her fellow-actors. As you say, miliosr, her feeling for Gilbert is important, and that may account for the sincerity one feels in some of the scenes in 'Queen Christina'.
Gilbert Roland. He certainly was virile enough, he could convincingly portray a Spaniard, and he had the kind of looks that would certainly tempt one to abdicate for him!
Anyone who has seen 'The Bullfighter and the Lady' will know what you mean, but Garbo was well-beyond not being able to resist this sort of thing. I think her feeling for John Gilbert was far more important than I'd realized, and your pointing out her insistence on him for the part is exactly right: She clearly still loved him, or she wouldn't have gone to such pains to secure the part for him; although she didn't want to go back to 'being lovers', I'm sure this affection for him plays a more vital role in what is best about 'queen christina' than even I had thought. In a sense, she does a sort of 'abdication' for John Gilbert in championing him (rather an extraordinary tribute, isn't it, when the only person in Hollywood that will go all the way to bat for you is also the biggest star?) Now 'loving Gilbert Roland' is another matter, Dietrich would have been the type to have seen why Gilbert Roland would have been just the one she'd abdicate for--at least for the run-of-the-picture.
edited to add:
"Garbo had a long memory."
That's marvelous and illuminating. I think it explains part of what her genius is. A 'long memory' is a truly aristocratic trait, I think, and doesn't have to do with bloodlines, etc., as hers were none too lofty, as we know.